by Marion Nestle
Mar 5 2010

Recognize food brands? Even 3-year-olds do this

I’m not sure why this would be news to anyone who has taken a toddler to a grocery store, but researchers at the University of Michigan have now demonstrated that very young children recognize food brands, especially McDonald’s.  Didn’t Morgan Spurlock show this in Supersize Me! (also my screen debut)?  Whatever.  It’s good to have the research and the implications are clear: something must be done to put some curbs on food marketing to kids.

  • Hannah G

    This is SO true and not surprising. I remember that one of my profs in grad school presented research showing that kids were more likely to eat carrots if they came in McDonald’s packaging than if they were unbranded. Maybe we should take advantage of this!

  • nycmom

    Right on this point, Diane Levin, co-author of “So Sexy So Soon,” a great book about how media/marketers have sexualized childhood, just guest blogged about this today on Rachel Simmon’s blog. She writes: “But, Mrs. Obama, these 4 pillars [of Let’s Move”] are doomed to failure if you do not add an essential 5th pillar to your Campaign, namely:

    5. Curbing the power of corporations to market junk food to children”

  • Just this week, I did a nutrition education workshop called “Fast Food Fats” at Head Start where I showed the amount of fat (in tsps of crisco) in some common fast food items. Under the title, I had logos of McDs, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, and a few others. Even though they can’t read almost EVERY child who came by the display said “McDonalds!” when the saw the poster. How concerning.

  • Lorraine Ottens

    Even if the big guys quit marketing to kids how do we deal with their parents? Let’s face it they grew up fully emerged in the McD world of marketing to children, they don’t know any better and now they are in raising the next generation and making the decisions regarding what and where to eat.

    I fully support drastic changes with regard to marketing campaigns aimed at the youth, but fear not helping to educate their parents we may be doomed to failure. Perhaps the focus should be in the direction of school gardens and kitchens with parent participation.
    Somehow we need to engage the family because it is just far too difficult to change your diet without family participation and unity.

  • Anthro


    I think you make a very important point and one that gets overlooked. Many of today’s parents (some in their 20’s) are themselves the product of this intensive marketing to children. Only a multi-pronged approach that includes limiting marketing and re-educating the parents will be truly effective. The idea that all parents are 30-something, well-educated and upwardly mobile is a stereotype (as if these folks are immune to marketing anyway).

    I noticed that the Olympics (the only TV I manage to tolerate–just barely) was inundated with a McDonald’s commercial that showed just such stereotypical parents racing each other home to deliver the much coveted “Happy Meal” to their adoring son.

    On a related note, I know someone who has done very well with his investments in spite of the economic downturn. He is heavily invested in “big food” including Coke and McDonalds. As long as people get rich off of this, I don’t see much hope for real reform. This guy has no kids or grandkids and lives in a gated community.

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  • Brent

    Matching a logo with an often seen TV commercial is a demonstration of the skills acquired at the beginning of reading. Kids have been doing this for decades. My mother thought I was a genius because I said Nabisco in the supermarket when looking at a cookie box. That was 50 years ago when I was 3. I am sure it was due to seeing a television commercial for the product and remembering the logo.

  • You make a good case for what SHOULD be done. But what will be done? The corporate execs will take note of this and realize that yes, their marketing to toddlers IS effective, and will redouble their efforts.

  • jomega

    Of course young children recognise food brands. A toddler who isn’t learning to identify comon objects in its environment is is likely afflicted with some sort of developmental or cognitive defect. I fail to see how it follows from this that “something must be done to put some curbs on food marketing to kids”. Junk food was marketed to children much more aggressively in the 1970’s and 80’s, with cartoon mascots for nearly every fast food chain (remember McDonaldland, the Marvellous Magical Burger King, Der WeinerDog ) and candy of every sort heavily advertised during children’s programming. In those days fat kids were very much the exception, and ruthlessly mocked by their peers. It seems to me that the fault for children getting fed fattening crap liesentirely with parents who are too ignorant or lazy to make nutritious choices for their families.

  • For some reason marketing to kids is legal. We know it’s effective and we know it is not in the child’s best interest. Let’s end this practice in the United States like it has been (sensibly) banned for years.

    Yes “westwood” corporations surely have for years researched the effectiveness of advertising to children of different ages. This is no news to them.

  • edit to last comment:
    Let’s end this practice in the United States like the way it is in other countries where this has been (sensibly) banned for years.

  • I’m proud to say my little girl once thought McDonald’s had to do with Old MacDonald. Still, every time we go to the store we have to have a conversation about why Elmo is on that box of cookies (so kids will ask their parents to buy them), whether Arthur helped make that canned spaghetti (No, because he’s a cartoon character), and if the juice with Clifford on the box tastes better than the brand we normally buy. It takes constant vigilance to defend our kids against all those multi million dollar marketing campaigns. One tactic: every week during the summer, we give our daughter her allowance at the farmers market and she’s excited to buy local carrots or cherry tomatoes grown by people we know! @realfoodmom

  • nycmom

    Yale’s Rudd Center just posted about a new marketing campaign by Burger King using the children’s book series “Pinkalicious.”

  • Michelle

    Yes… but marketing/advertising is not the whole story. My two-year-old, upon seeing the Golden Arches, says “Fries.” He has those fries maybe twice a month, at home–but they come from a bag with that symbol on it. (But when he sees Ronald McDonald, he just says, “Clown.” He hasn’t seen the commercials.)
    Young children will make the connection between the container and food very readily. He also knows which container ice cream comes in, can tell the milk jug from the juice bottle, squeals with delight when he sees the boxes our produce is delivered in, etc.–I’m sure most kids his age can connect the dots like that.
    I think that if families refrain from buying a product over the long term, it will stop getting the children’s attention; but since most families don’t, it’s a matter of parents’ being mindful of their intentions and not caving (at least, not often!) when the kids ask for something unhealthy.

  • well of course, everyone loves to get rich but not everyone would love to do hard work ;~.