Author: McAlister, Anna R
Date published: September 1, 2010
From a very early age, children are specific targets of advertising and promotional messages. Companies invest in child-directed marketing because children are seen as representing three valuable markets: buyers' market (i.e., they may make purchase decisions and spend their own pocket money), influence market (i.e., without spending their own money, children may request that their parents make specific purchases) and future market (i.e., if they like a brand during childhood, then they may purchase that particular brand when they are old enough to spend their own money).
Marketers, and the companies they represent, continually try to figure out how they will cultivate the brand faithful. Even the youngest consumers, including preschoolers, receive these messages- but do they understand them? Our recent research reveals that young children experience some of the same marketing pressures as young adults.
In our two-part study, published in Psychology & Marketing, we first assessed brand recognition levels in 38 children aged three to five years. Mainstream-brand logos, like Lego and Coca-Cola, were presented to children on a card. In individual sessions, brand names were shown to the children with questions like, "Have you seen this before?" and "What types of things do they make?" The children's recognition rates were as high as 92 percent for some of the 50 brands tested. The most commonly recognized brand was McDonald's, followed closely by other brands of fast food, soda and toys. The results showed clearly that children as young as three can recognize the brands marketed to them. Even though many of these children could not yet read, they were very good at telling us relevant information about each brand (e.g., what products they made, where the local store was, etc.).
The second part of the study tested another 42 children between the ages of three and five. Each child was tasked to place smaller cards with pictures on them on a collage that started with only the brand logo. For example, we presented a McDonald's board and Burger King board and asked the child to place all the smaller picture cards that belonged with McDonald's (e.g., French fry box, "drive thru" sign) on the McDonald's board and all the Burger King ones on the Burger King board. Although this task sounds very easy, some children performed well while others could not distinguish between various brand pairs.
After scoring was completed, this test found children were more likely to know a lot about "kiddy" brands. Brands that are mostly targeted to teens and adults (e.g., Nike) were less understood by preschoolers. This may be because children see logos for kids' brand each time they open a packaged item or perhaps they have a vested interest in being able to request some items by name to a parent or caregiver.
An additional aspect of the study examined if children understand brand meaning. In addition to knowing what products are offered from each brand, some young children know that brands communicate other meanings. Some preschoolers understand that brands can serve as indicators of other things, such as the personality of the user or the quality of the products. Just as an adult might judge the wearer of Versace jeans to be wealthy, confident or sophisticated, some preschoolers judge other children on the basis of the brands they use. For example, another child who plays with Lego toys might be judged to have many friends and be a fun play partner.
Before we conducted this research, other studies had suggested that children do not use brands in their judgments of others until age seven or eight. The results in both segments of our recent study clearly show this can happen much earlier than grade school, but it depends on the individual child's development. We believe when messages are tailored to captivate a child's attention, information may be more easily processed and stored, therefore increasing a child's brand understanding.
This study showed us that some preschool children really do understand the differences between brands like Coke and Pepsi- and at a much earlier age than previously theorized. As we more fully understand how and when children develop brand knowledge, we will know when they should be shielded from advertising pressures.
What Should Regulators Do to Help?
The results of this study could not be timelier, given the recent "Let's Move" nationwide campaign announcement by First Lady Michelle Obama. The "Let's Move" campaign aims to support nutritional meals in schools with an additional focus on increasing physical activity. It's a fact that one in three kids is overweight or obese in the U.S. and costs the U.S. $150 billion per year to treat obesity-related illnesses. The outcomes of our study help paint the picture that young children really do understand the power of branding and advertising. These findings highlight the need for lawmakers to continue to monitor and regulate advertising to children.
This study shows children use brand cues to determine what food products will be exciting or which toys will be the most enjoyable, and values associated with items (like food choices) are formed as young as three years old. There are plenty of three-to-five-yearolds that base their drink choices on "bubbles and fun." It's clear from the fast food branding segment of this study that we need public policies that address the development of eating habits very early on in a child's life.
For every argument against advertising to children, the defense raised by marketers is that parents should be responsible for determining the content to which their children are exposed. Whether marketers' defense of their clever tactics is fair is a topic too broad to cover in this article. Instead, we focus on delivering some of our top tips for parents who hope to protect their children from the potential adverse effects of advertising exposure.
Reduce Commercial Content
Consider restricting the amount of advertising to which your child is exposed. One of the simplest ways to achieve this is to replace TV time with DVD viewing. DVDs do not contain as much advertising content as commercial TV.
Talk to Your Child About Advertising
Make time to talk to your child about advertising. Our findings suggest that young children are starting to understand brands, but that does not mean they question advertising messages. Encouraging a healthy level of skepticism may be beneficial.
Explain the Rules
Research in developmental psychology suggests that the most effective parenting style involves a family "democracy." While parents maintain ultimate control, children can benefit from understanding why rules are set. If you refuse to purchase a particular brand of toy or food for your child, then the chances of your child respecting the rules without a tantrum are higher if you provide an explanation. Young children may have trouble controlling their emotional responses, but be patient. If you consistently explain the rules, then children will eventually learn not to ask.
Be Firm But Fair
Occasionally, let your child make purchase decisions. Set some clear boundaries that allow your child a "safe" space in which to practice making independent decisions. For example, if your child insists on choosing her own breakfast cereal, first you make a shortlist of allowable products (four or five that you will definitely agree to), then encourage your child to choose whatever she wants from that set. If your child is old enough to understand these simple rules, then you might feel comfortable telling her that she can spend her allowance on whatever she likes, so long as particular brands or categories are not purchased. As children grow older, allow more leeway in their decision making.
Serve Take-Out Meals on Plates
Other studies have suggested that children learn a lot about brands via packaging. In particular, children may learn to like the taste of energy-dense foods because they hold positive relationships with the brands that are promoted heavily on the wrappers. If you purchase take-out food for your child, then serve it on a plate at home. Without the commercial packaging, your child has less opportunity to associate the food with the brand. He can make a decision about liking the food without marketing and advertising associations. While he may know exactly where you purchased the food, he can focus on family conversation rather than gaze at the brand logo. If your child is young enough to be "duped/' then consider adding some fresh veggies to the plate beside the burger and fries; he may develop a liking for the veggies at the same time!
By Anna R. McAI ister, PhD and T. Bettina Cornwell, PhD
Anna McAlister (PhD, University of Queensland, Australia) is Lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer in Marketing at University of Queensland, Australia. Her research focuses on consumer behavior with a special interest in the application of theories of developmental psychology to the study of children's consumer socialization. Email: armcalister@ wise. edu.
T. Bettina Corn well (PhD, University of Texas) is a professor of Marketing and Sport Management at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Prior to joining the School of Kinesiology at the University of Michigan, she was a professor in marketing at the University of Queensland in Australia. Her research focuses on marketing communications and consumer behavior, especially with regards to international and public policy issues. Email: tbettina@umich. edu.