This may not be news to parents of small kids, but branding is a potent force even among preschool children. A new study of preschoolers in California shows that kids will even eat carrot sticks if they come in a McDonald’s wrapper.

Researchers tested 63 preschoolers from low-income families in California. The children were each given two identical samples of three foods from McDonald’s, one in branded wrappers and the other in identical packaging bearing no brand. They were also given milk and carrots.

About 77 per cent of children said they preferred the taste of the french fries in the McDonald’s bag, while only 13.3 per cent favoured the fries in the plain bag. Only 10 per cent said they thought the two offerings tasted the same.

When the chicken nuggets were served, 59 per cent said they preferred the taste of those in the McDonald’s branded box, while 18 per cent thought the plainly wrapped nuggets tasted better. [From The Sydney Morning Herald - Healthy food: wrap it in fast food trappings.]

Dr. Jenny O’Dea, associate professor of nutrition at the University of Sydney, said firms like McDonalds were successful “because they understood that children loved food which appealed to their senses.” Based on sensory branding principles, this may indeed be part of the reason. The Coalition on Food Advertising to Children, who, despite their name, doesn’t seem to like advertising, blamed the massive amount of marketing directed at children.

In coverage of the story in the Deseret News, it’s noted that McDonalds has voluntarily established limits on its marketing to young children, and will promote only healthier fare. Critics still abound, though:

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.
“It’s an amazing study and it’s 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.

The takeaway from this study is that branding is indeed significant, even at preschool ages; heavy marketing to this group, though, may raise ethical issues and may draw fire from critics.

One test they didn’t run was to compare the preschoolers’ preference for “branded” carrot sticks vs. “generic” french fries. I’m guessing the fries would win hands down. There are limits to the potency of even the most powerful brands. :)

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