Marketing tricking tots taste buds?
CHICAGO Anything made by McDonalds tastes better, preschoolers said in a study that powerfully demonstrates how advertising can trick the taste buds of young children.Even carrots, milk and apple juice tasted better to the kids when they were wrapped in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches.The study had youngsters sample identical McDonalds foods in name-brand and unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test.You see a McDonalds label and kids start salivating, said Diane Levin, a childhood development specialist who campaigns against advertising to kids. She had no role in the research.Levin said it was the first study I know of that has shown so simply and clearly whats going on with (marketing to) young children.Study author Dr. Tom Robinson said the kids perception of taste was physically altered by the branding. The Stanford University researcher said it was remarkable how children so young were already so influenced by advertising.The study involved 63 low-income children ages 3 to 5 from Head Start centers in San Mateo County, Calif. Robinson believes the results would be similar for children from wealthier families.The research, appearing in Augusts Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, was funded by Stanford and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.The study will likely stir more debate over the movement to restrict ads to kids. It comes less than a month after 11 major food and drink companies, including McDonalds, announced new curbs on marketing to children under 12.McDonalds says the only Happy Meals it will promote to young children will contain fruit and have fewer calories and less fat.This is an important subject and McDonalds has been actively addressing it for quite some time, said company spokesman Walt Riker. Weve always wanted to be part of the solution and we are providing solutions.But Dr. Victor Strasburger, an author of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy urging limits on marketing to children, said the study shows too little is being done.Its an amazing study and its very sad, Strasburger said.Advertisers have tried to do exactly what this study is talking about to brand younger and younger children, to instill in them an almost obsessional desire for a particular brand-name product, he said.Just two of the 63 children studied said theyd never eaten at McDonalds, and about one-third ate there at least weekly. Most recognized the McDonalds logo but it was mentioned to those who didnt.The study included three McDonalds menu items hamburgers, chicken nuggets and french fries and store-bought milk or juice and carrots. Children got two identical samples of each food on a tray, one in McDonalds wrappers or cups and the other in plain, unmarked packaging. The kids were asked if they tasted the same or if one was better. (Some children didnt taste all the foods.)McDonalds-labeled samples were the clear favorites. French fries were the biggest winner; almost 77 percent said the labeled fries tasted best while only 13 percent preferred the others.Fifty-four percent preferred McDonalds-wrapped carrots versus 23 percent who liked the plain-wrapped sample.The only results not statistically clear-cut involved the hamburgers, with 29 kids choosing McDonalds-wrapped burgers and 22 choosing the unmarked ones.Fewer than one-fourth of the children said both samples of all foods tasted the same.Pradeep Chintagunta, a University of Chicago marketing professor, said a fairer comparison might have gauged kids preferences for the McDonalds label versus another familiar brand, such as Mickey Mouse.I dont think you can necessarily hold this against McDonalds, he said, since the goal of marketing is to build familiarity and sell products.He noted that parents play a strong role in controlling food choices for children so young.But Robinson argued that because young children are unaware of the persuasive intent of marketing, it is an unfair playing field.