August 17

McDonald's branding and children's taste

15  comments

_freeform_images_mcdonaldsfeed.jpgIf you don’t think McDonald’s branding works – at least with young children – read on.
Researchers at Stanford studied 63 children aged from 3.5 to 5.4 years to see if these kids would prefer foods that came in McDonald’s packaging. The children were presented with identical McDonald’s foods in either a plain wrapper or in a wrapper with the McDonald’s logo, then asked which one tasted better.

The foods were (1) one-quarter of a McDonald’s hamburger, one partially wrapped in a white McDonald’s wrapper showing the McDonald’s logos and the word Hamburger in brown and the other wrapped identically in a matched plain white wrapper of the same size and material; (2) a Chicken McNugget in a white McDonald’s bag with a red arches logo and the phrase Chicken McNuggets in blue and the other in a matched plain white bag; (3) 3 McDonald’s french fries in a white bag with a McDonald’s yellow arches and smile logo on a red background and the words “We love to see you smile” in blue on yellow along the edge and 3 fries in a matched plain white bag; (4) about 3 ounces of 1% fat milk (or apple juice for 1 child who was not allowed to drink milk) in a white McDonald’s cup with lid and straw and in a matched plain white cup with lid and straw; and (5) 2 “baby” carrots placed on top of a McDonald’s french fries bag and on top of a matched plain white bag. Hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and french fries were all purchased from a local McDonald’s. Carrots were not available or marketed by McDonald’s at the time of the study. Only unused (not previously in contact with food) McDonald’s and plain wrappings, bags, and cups were used so there would be no residual smell or taste. Only the most basic available McDonald’s packaging was used, without any additional promotional markings (eg, additional graphics, Ronald McDonald image, or images of movie characters). Each food in the McDonald’s packaging was taken out of a McDonald’s brown paper bag with a yellow, blue, and red arches logo, and each food in plain packaging was taken out of a matched plain brown paper bag. The order of foods presented and placement of the McDonald’s wrapped food on the left or right followed a predetermined random order for each child and each food.

As you might imagine the majority of the kids described the foods presented with the McDonald’s wrappers as tasting the best even though there was no difference in the actual food. Even the carrots – which are not a McDonald’s item – were more appealing to the children when associated with a McDonald’s wrapper.
Here’s how the test shook out:
mcdonalds-taste-pref.JPG
When the researchers drilled down a little deeper into the data they discovered significant correlations between number of televisions in the household (a reasonable measure of TV watching time), the number of trips to McDonald’s and the kid’s preference for foods labeled as McDonald’s.
Here are those statistics in graphic form:
mcds-tv-jpeg.JPG
mcds-visits-jpeg.JPG
As you can see there is a kind of dose-response relationship for this data, which is the strongest kind of this type of relationship.
According to this paper the food and beverage industry spends $10 billion each year advertising to our children. This study shows that this advertising – at least as done by McDonald’s – works. Even for little bitty kids who aren’t even school aged.
The New York Times did a piece on this study a few days ago. The reported got a response from McDonald’s:

Walt Riker, a McDonald’s vice president, said in an e-mail message that “this is an important study and McDonald’s has been actively addressing it for quite some time.

I’ll bet they’ve been addressing it for some time. I imagine they addressed it with high fives all through the marketing department.
Mr. Riker continues:

In fact, McDonald’s own ‘branding’ of milk, apples, salads, and other fruits and vegetables has directly resulted in major increases in the purchases of these menu items by moms, families and children.

This is, of course, corporate speak for we’re doing the right thing. Next time you go into a McDonald’s, see how many kids are eating the fruits, salads, and vegetables (other than fries, of course).
It’s a tough battle with kids to get them to eat right. It’s especially a tough battle when tired, overworked moms and dads have to go head to head with $10 billion worth of marketing. But it’s got to be done if we want to bring up healthy, non-obese, non-insulin-resistant kids. I worry about the long term effects of this kind of marketing.
Once when I was about five years old I went up on a Ferris wheel all by myself at a carnival that came to the little town where I grew up. It scared the absolute bejesus out of me. To this day I still don’t like Ferris Wheels and break a sweat whenever I end up going on one. It’s not the height because I fly and have skydived and climbed rocks and done all kinds of things that I probably wouldn’t have done had I been afraid of heights. It’s because the fear was burned into me at a critical time in my development. At about the same time all these kids are getting imprinted with the idea that McDonald’s and all the other junk pushed by that $1o billion in ad money is good. Those ideas will stick with these kids for many, many years. It’s a real shame.


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  1. Thank you, once again, for sharing your inspired thoughts and revelations with us. As a father of young children myself, I’m sad to say that I’ve lost hope in this fight, for even the elementary school serves them coca-cola and other candies on occasion. It’s going to take a much larger movement, something that combat 10,000,000,000 dollars. I can’t imagine what.
    Education is really the only tool we have in our arsenal.

  2. Is it me, or does that first picture look like that baby is “breast-feeding” on a sesame-seed bun? (But then again, that’s your point, right?)
    Right you are. That’s the point.

  3. We are working hard with our dd to help her make right choices…but the school lunch program is terrible. We are actually paying her an extra amount on her allowance for making right choices at school! I keep her accountable because I can look online and see what she used her money to buy in the lunch line…now that is way cool…lol. She also gets to keep lunch money for spending if she packs a lunch to take to school. I know it’s like bribery but for 12 year olds..it works..
    At home is not a problem…I’m the cook..I cook low carb..everyone eats low carb….or they go hungry….hehehe. I tell them they all swam in the same gene pool so they should learn to eat like their diabetic mother before they become diabetics themselves!
    Ressy
    Hi Ressy–
    I admire your foresight and gumption. I can’t tell you how many patients I’ve had who were overweight diabetic mothers who complained that they were going to have to fix two sets of meals – one for them and one for their kids. When I would tell them to fix the same meals for both, they would say, ‘Oh no, my kids don’t need to diet. They can eat anything they want and not gain weight. They’re so lucky.’ I would then ask them if they too were able to eat anything they wanted when they were their children’s ages. They would always respond: Oh yes, I was skinny as a rail then.’ Most could never make the correlation between their current condition and their previous lifelong diet.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  4. What are your thoughts on public schools w/soda machines in the student cafeteria? TIA – Fred.
    You can probably imagine my thoughts. I’m against them. When I went to school there were no such things, and, coincidentally, there was not a lot of obesity. In my entire elementary, jr. high and high school career I don’t remember any places to get food other than the lunch room. And there all one got was whatever the lunch was being served that day. Even the kids who brought their lunches bought milk in the lunch line. I don’t remember anyone ever bringing soft drinks to school let alone buying them there.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  5. OK, now I understand why my family almost never goes to fast food joints, it’s because we have only one TV. We only go to fast food joints when on the road.
    I do think that it depends a lot on the culture at home. It’s up to the parents to reinforce the good habits. We never use a trip to a fast food joint as a reward, but I do know that some parents do.
    I suspect that more than just some parents do.

  6. I find it striking the change in parent etiquette in 30 years.
    Back then when i was home with the kids, you never fed other kids at your home without checking with the parent. And you had to get permission to take them to a drive through, and some hints on what it would be okay to order.
    Nowadays listening to the moms it is standard to drive through as a treat each time kids have guests. And they order whatever they want. Giant drinks, fries, desserts.
    Maybe my experience is skewed because it was the first flush of the natural foods movement and a university town… but things have changed so much so fast.
    And continue to change at a dizzying pace.

  7. Ressy (comment #3), How utterly brilliant! I’m going to try that technique with my 11 year old girl this year. Thank you.
    I am disgusted by how often my kids ask for fast food, and am even more disgusted with myself for caving this past week. My 5 year old broke his leg, and this has caused both my husband and me to throw all of our common sense out the window, it seems. We feel like we have a 40 pound newborn… carrying him around everywhere, we’re exhausted. Fast food to the rescue. 🙁
    From now on, though, I’ll be tempted to wrap my grass fed steaks in Micky D’s wrappers. Wink wink!

  8. You are more than welcome Karen! I have 3 older boys, 2 of which have joined the low carb lifestyle because they feel so much better. My one very skinny boy does not but since he is in Baghdad and running his legs off with the Army…he stays skinny and healthy. My dh is also a low carber since it means he doesn’t have to take his blood pressure meds!
    Sorry about your boy…gonna be a few interesting weeks in your household! And you are gonna get your exercise carrying him around!
    Ressy

  9. What’s this, a corporate entity doing business according to the rules is yielding a return on their investment in marketing? This is news, how exactly? An economist could tell you that they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t yield results. And pretty much anyone who takes 30 seconds to look at a random American McDonald’s (there are variations abroad) could tell you that it is designed to sell to children/parents first. What’s the last adult restaurant you went to that featured a playground? Or a Clown?
    The real shocker here is this: a lot of normally laissez faire type people are reading reports of this research as parents and thinking they cannot compete with a billion dollar a year ad budget and that something should be done. I wonder, what exactly should we do since McD (and others) exercise their first amendment rights, play mostly fair and buy airtime for their ads. That’s the market, right? It must be optimal.
    FWIW: This is tongue in cheek. I don’t think we should regulate McD’s ability to spread their commercial message, and I don’t think they are in need of any heavy government regulation on their message. It would be nice, however, if they had to comply with packaged goods labeling requirements (at least one regulation that most dieters can say is to the benefit of the many) on their sexy packages. I went into a McD the other day and was unable to find nutritional information. They are supposed to post plainly. Of course, I went into a Starbucks and was similarly unable to find the info, so McD isn’t alone in their lack of compliance. But, as consumers, we might ask for a little substantial information with our high gloss imaginings of food (I think Omnivore’s Dilemma had the best piece about what a McDonald’s burger really is… it’s reminiscent of a good burger experience. Nothing more or less).
    Any rate, always interesting to see the normally anti-reg people on the verge of clamoring for regs.
    PS- Currently reading “Government Failure vs. Market Failure” which excoriates a number of government policies and produces some recommendations for better policies and places where policy is inappropriate. Very interesting. The more I look at it, the more I blame Congress, which leads you to ultimately blame voters.
    Hi Max–
    “…normally anti-reg people on the verge of clamoring for regs.” I’m assuming you mean the commenters. I’m certainly not clamoring for regs. I’m all for McD’s and anyone else marketing the heck out of their stuff. I’m just trying to educate the consumers so they won’t buy the hype. Education is the antidote for marketing hype. Yeah, but what about the kids? They’re not sophisticated enough to see through the hype. That’s true, but there aren’t many 3 – 5 year olds who live alone and make all their own decisions. They can’t go to McD’s by themselves. Most have parents who can – if they will or if they have the will – limit the kids’ exposure to TV and to crummy fast food. Someone’s got to be in charge – let’s hope it’s the parents.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  10. “It’s especially a tough battle when tired, overworked moms and dads have to go head to head with $10 billion worth of marketing.”
    It’s not so hard…
    Repeat after me – “No”.
    See?
    Seriously, though, consistency beats the marketing. Our boys learned at an early age not to whine about stuff they saw on TV. We just didn’t buy the sugary junk or go to the fast food restaurants all that much. We eat out maybe once a month and that is only because we are on the road or something. The boys do get treats occasionally like on family ice cream night, so we aren’t complete ogres; it just isn’t all of the time as seems to be the norm anymore.
    It isn’t that we are “meanies” or anything – it’s about getting value for the money. Eating out is a waste of money and doesn’t really save time. I can pan fry up a couple of steaks in less time than it takes to sit in the drive-thru and there isn’t that much clean up. Steaks and a can of green beans or a bag of coleslaw is probably cheaper, too.
    Blaming McDonald’s or TV for this is kind of sad, IMO. They don’t drop this stuff off at my house and make me buy it.
    You are right across the board, but it does take some fortitude when tired and beaten down to not just give in.

  11. Lest we forget, “you dee-zerve a break to-day, at McDonald’s”. Can you hear it?
    I must be hitting a particular age because I have so many jingles in my head. I can’t decide if I am annoyed or relieved that today’s TV commercials are using classic rock tunes instead of jingles. We Tivo and fast forward through most of the ads anyway, though.
    Anna
    Yep. Who would have thought that even the mighty Beatles would become elevator music.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  12. Right on, Ryan!
    When I see toddlers being “led” into fast food joints I just cringe. I look on the fat and grease and salt and sugar in fast food as serious child abuse. I have no idea how a (supposedly) “loving” mother can do that to her child.
    [No, I’m not a health good nut; Safeway, A & P, Albertsons, Publix, et al are fine stores if you just shop the perimeter.]
    We NEVER looked at fast food as a reward.
    We NEVER considered fast food as a substitute for a meal.
    Fast food was viewed not much differently than peep-shows, porno-shops, or beer halls; free to do business, but nothing to do with us.
    Some parents go along with coaches who believe that fast food is acceptable in a sports venue. Fortunately, our girl’s coach was the wife of a physician and she provided fruit plates as the after game treat. No one is required to frequent fast food joints; I have no idea why some folks think it’s a requirement of childhood.
    Likewise, we never bought Captain Crunch, or any other sugared cereal, for our daughter. She was raised on oatmeal or other plain cereals during the weekday with omelets or waffles on the weekends, and “meals from scratch” the rest of the time. We love to cook and don’t view cooking as a “chore.” [Women who complain about cooking are sending a terrible message to their family.]
    My daughter is now in her 40s and never developed a taste for fast food; she says it is “too salty and too greasy.” She prefers apples and bananas to candy bars, and the only “soda” she drinks is an occasional 7-up. Since she wasn’t brought up on junk food, she doesn’t view sugar, salt, and grease, with nostalgia.
    In fact, to the lucky generations who were not raised on fast food, it tastes yucky.

  13. I try to avoid McDonald’s. I sometimes get a fast food burger without the bun and salad instead of fries, but McDonald’s ruined that too. Their salad dressings are full of sugar. Once I got a chicken bacon ranch salad at McD’s and when I got home, I discovered the packet of ranch dressing had 9g of carbs. Needless to say, I threw it out and got some ranch dressing out of the fridge. Normally, caesar dressing is low carb, but McD’s has 4g per packet.
    Unfortunately, we established bad habits with our kids before I developed diabetes and those habits are hard to break. My son (age 10) especially likes McD’s, though I try to stear him away from it. He will go for the starch & sugar. My daughter (age 12) is more open to low carb, but still wants the sugar stuff. I am trying to change things, but I don’t want to be too overbearing as that could be counter productive. My parents tried to keep me away from sugar, but went ballistic when I ate it. That just made me want it more.
    Now that I have type 2 diabetes, I’m concerned about my kids getting it, even in childhood. My son doesn’t like most veggies, but if I can get him to eat more meat and less starch & sugar, he’ll be better off. I agree McD’s has a right to exist and advetise, but I also have a right not to eat there.

  14. This is kind of off topic but I don’t know about where you live, but standards here have really declined. Nowadays I walk into any fast food place just to smell how dirty it is. I swear no one cleans these places anymore. When the place is run by a teenager, with upteen teeny boppers under their command, no one seems to notice that the place should be cleaned. Twenty years ago cleanliness seemed a priority, but not anymore. Why would anyone eat at a place that not only sold fast food but smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned in a year?
    Hi Hellistile–
    It’s something in the teenage makeup that doesn’t let them notice dirt and disarray. When MD and I went to visit our eldest son in college we couldn’t stand to spend even small amounts of time in his room at the frat house. He told us he had cleaned it up for our visit. MD would compulsively try to clean it but that was like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Neither of us could comprehend how he could happily live in such squalor. Now this same son – a few years later – is fastidiously clean and neat.
    I once read in a book about dogs that the main thing dogs are interested in is other dogs. I think the same holds for teeny boppers: their main interest is other boppers, cleanliness and order be damned.
    It’s simply one more reason for me to avoid fast food places.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  15. Dan, I feel your pain( re: children’s bad habits). My daughters (8 & 13), who live with me on the weekends are sugar addicts. They love pasta, sugary cereals, bread and all the other carby crap. They think I am an ogre for not giving in to their fast food cravings. Their mother eats out all the time, so thats what they want. I am making slow inroads, at least they eat oatmeal, and protein shakes when they are with me. If we go to McDonalds they won’t have fries or soda. The only fast food that I consider eating at ocassionally is Pollo Loco. Or In&Out no buns.
    An In & Out burger protein style (as they call it, which means wrapped in lettuce leaves instead of a bun) is about the only fast food I’ll consider eating.
    MRE

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