In taste tests, preschool-age children preferred the taste of foods and drinks packaged in McDonald's cartons over identical foods and drinks packaged in unbranded cartons.
"We found that if children thought a food came from McDonald's they thought it tasted better than an identical food that was not branded," Dr Thomas N. Robinson of California's Stanford University told Reuters Health.
"Thinking a food was from McDonald's actually changed its taste for the kids," he said.
Ban kid-aimed ads
With the childhood obesity epidemic, along with past research showing that most children under the age of eight don't understand the persuasive intent of advertising, these findings support calls for legislative and/or regulatory approaches to reducing marketing to children, Robinson said. "Some countries have already found the threat to be compelling enough to ban advertising to children," he noted.
"On a more positive note, our findings suggest that if McDonald's and other fast food corporations spent the same billions to market healthful foods instead of high-fat, calorie-dense foods, they might be able to improve children's nutrition instead of hurting it," Robinson said.
For the study, 63 children between the ages of 3 and 5 sampled five pairs of identical foods and beverages in basic McDonald's packaging and in matched but unbranded packaging. The foods and drinks were: McDonald's hamburger, Chicken McNugget, McDonald's French fries, 1 percent fat milk (or apple juice for one child who couldn't drink milk) and baby carrots.
Made a big difference
For 4 out of 5 comparisons, children were significantly more likely to prefer the taste of a food or drink if they thought it was from McDonald's. "This was true even for the carrots, a food that was not marketed by or available from McDonald's," the team notes in Monday's issue of the medical journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
"I expected we would find some effects of branding in this age group, but not this strong, especially for the carrots and milk," Robinson admitted. "We took a lot of care to use plain McDonald's packaging, no Happy Meals, no movie characters, no Ronald McDonald ... to focus solely on the impact of the McDonald's brand. I would expect the effects to be even stronger if we included any of those."
Robinson said he was also surprised to find that about one-third of the children were eating McDonald's food once a week or more and 76 percent had toys from McDonald's in their homes. "That represents tremendous direct exposure to the McDonald's brand, above and beyond all the advertising they see on television and elsewhere," Robinson noted.
So when a youngster asks for McDonald's, "that may have little to do with how much they truly like the taste of the food," he concluded, "but much more to do with the billions of dollars that McDonald's spends on its marketing, including the effects of that marketing on parents."
SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, August 2007. – (Reuters Health)
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