Friday, August 10, 2007

The Power of Marketing

While reading sports news today, I came across a post on a blog called Playbooks & Profits that covers issues related to sports marketing. The post was highlighting an AP piece that relates to the power of marketing, particularly on very young children. I found it... frightening.

Basically, researchers took a bunch of preschoolers and gave them a taste test. They bought some McDonald's food and some other food (carrots, milk), and gave each child the same food item on two sides. One side had McDonald's packaging, the other side did not. The kids were asked which food tasted better. The McDonald's-packaged food won resoundingly... even on baby carrots!

Being a parent of three 6-and-under children myself, this is a shocking reminder of the power of marketing on young minds. I'm glad that I don't let my kids watch TV commercials. They watch videos (we skip the previews), and sometimes the local public broadcasting station. The very few occasions when we have watched a kid's show on the networks, I mute the commercials (in spite of their loud complaints).

Good marketing, I think, has more power than we (or at least I) tend to give it credit for.



Kevin said...


I saw this briefly and indirectly through Slashdot: "Google News Allowing Story Participants To Comment" which provided "Why McDonald's has kiddie market wrapped up" as an example with comments from a McDonald's Vice President and a Professor of Pediatrics.

Advertising is significant. It's intended to trigger desires. It certainly takes a while to learn to effectively filter and interpret it, and even as adults, a brand we've heard of is often worth more than one we haven't. So, I think it's great that you vigilantly tailor what your kids watch and eat.

Here's the source article in the August "Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine": Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children's Taste Preferences. The AP piece you link seems to be a good summary.

I'm curious about some hypotheticals / questions:

1) What if an attractive and colorful container, perhaps with a logo, was used instead of a plain white or brown packaging? What if that new, better brand was stated to the kids to be the focus, and the McDonald's option was present but ignored?

2) What if kids were given the choice between a non-McDonald's hamburger and a McDonald's salad? McDonald's may be preferable but with how much weight?

3) Given that one third of the kids already ate McDonald's weekly, and only 2 of the 63 had never had McDonald's, how much of the brand preference is due to advertising versus actually eating?

4) Would a positive non-food brand association have a similar effect when attached to food?

I can see how it might be helpful to parents to regulate or ban marketing to young children. Are you advocating such regulation or banning, Mark?

Is it OK for McDonald's to continue marketing their "healthy" Happy Meals to children under 12?


MamasBoy said...

Carrots tasted better with McDonald's packaging?

We need to package the next food pyramid in a McDonald's wrapper. :-)

That's all I'm good for today. I'll leave the deep discussion to Kevin for now.

purple_kangaroo said...

You know, Kevin has a good point. Was it the fact that it was McDonald's packaging, or was it that it was more attractive and colorful?

If you give kids celery, peanut butter on a spoon, and raisins in a pile they won't eat nearly as well as if you put the peanut butter on the celery, line the raisins up on top and call it "ants on a log." Making food attractive, interesting and fun makes all the difference.

When my oldest daughter was a toddler, we could get her to eat just about anything by calling it a nugget. She loved chicken nuggets, and she didn't care what brand they were. She'd eat anything we called a nugget. So if she was refusing to eat her broccoli, but then we handed her a small piece of broccoli and called it a "broccoli nugget"--into her mouth it went.

purple_kangaroo said...

Here's an editorial pointing out that the other option was food wrapped in plain undecorated white paper, about a third of the kids in the study ate at McDonald's more than once a week, and 75% had McDonald's toys at home. Also, the study was only 63 kids.

The linked editorial also notes that almost half the kids in the study had televisions in their bedrooms at home. So I hardly think this was a representative group.

Also, I haven't been able to find good details on the study. But I did find that not all of the kids even tasted all the foods.

The item most kids thought tasted better in McD's packaging (77%, as opposed to 13% that thought the fries in white paper tasted better). Most of the kids preferred the hamburger in plain white paper to the hamburger from McDonald's, which is interesting. Personally, I think McD's fries are certainly tastier than many other brands, but home-grilled hamburgers are IMHO the best-tasting option.

But I can guarantee you that if you take any of my three children and give them a choice between milk in a plain white cup and milk in a brightly-decorated cup, they're going to prefer the milk in the colorful fun cup.

Hey, most kids even think peanut-butter sandwiches taste better when they're cut into little triangles then when they're just cut in half.

Kevin said...


I previously linked what I think is the source article from the August "Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine". Here's the pdf, which I think is better organized: Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children's Taste Preferences.

Unless I'm misreading it, Table 2. Children's Taste Preferences shows a McDonald's preference across the board, even with hamburgers (36.7% plain vs. 48.3% McD). So the article appears to be incorrect.

Just for completeness, here's Table 1. Sample Characteristics.

I agree about a good home grilled burger tasting better. It would be interesting to see grilled burgers in a plain wrapper compared with a McDonald's burger in their wrapper, since they seem pretty closely matched just based upon wrapper.

You highlighted a lot of important points. I didn't think much of it at the time, but 57% of kids with TVs in their room does seem high. They were also from low-income families, which I would think might lower that percentage due to price, but maybe there's also good reason it would raise it.

Your nugget post gave me a good laugh. Now that's the power of suggestibility and association. The little PB triangles, too, was an interesting example. Thanks.


MamasBoy said...

A mother's perspective! Certainly helpful. Thanks for chiming in.

purple_kangaroo said...

Kevin, thanks for reposing the link. I must have missed it the first time.

When looking at the statistics for hamburgers, if you add the columns for those who thought there was no difference and those who preferred the plain hamburger, you get the statistics given in the article. That gives a total of 29 kids who preferred the McDonald's wrappered hamburger and 31 who did not prefer the one with McDonald's branding.

Kevin said...

PK, I think you're right about their interpretation. Thanks for catching and clarifying that.