Asked to sample two identical foods from the fast-food giant McDonald’s, children preferred the taste of the version branded with the restaurant’s familiar “Golden Arches” to one extracted from unmarked paper packaging, say researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.
The study shows that even young children are swayed by brand preferences. The results are likely to fuel more debate over a growing movement to restrict marketing to kids under 8 years old.
“Kids don’t just ask for food from McDonald’s,” said Thomas Robinson, MD, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Packard Children’s and associate professor of pediatrics and of medicine at the School of Medicine. “They actually believe that the chicken nugget they think is from McDonald’s tastes better than an identical, unbranded nugget.”
The researchers studied the taste preferences of 63 children between the ages of 3 and 5 who were enrolled in six Head Start centers in San Mateo County, CA. The children sampled chicken nuggets, a hamburger, french fries, baby carrots and milk. The chicken nuggets, hamburger and french fries were all from McDonald’s; the carrots and milk were purchased from a grocery store. Each food sample was divided into two identical portions, one wrapped in a McDonald’s wrapper or placed in a McDonald’s bag, and the other in similar wrapping without the McDonald’s logo. The children were randomly asked to taste first one and then the other of the five identical, differently packaged, pairs of food samples and indicate whether they tasted the same or which they thought tasted better. With four out of the five foods — chicken nuggets, fries, carrots and milk — significantly more children pegged the McDonald’s product as tastier, despite the fact that the foods were exactly the same.
“The branding effect is very strong, even by only 3 to 5 years of age,” said Robinson.
The degree of preference expressed by the children correlated with the number of television sets they had in their homes and the frequency with which they ate at McDonald’s. They also asked the children’s parents to complete a questionnaire that asked, among other things, how many TVs they had in their house, how often they ate at McDonald’s and whether they had any toys from McDonald’s. The kids had an average of 2.4 televisions in their homes, and more than half the kids had a TV in their bedrooms. About one-third of the children ate at McDonald’s more than once a week, and more than three-quarters had McDonald’s toys at home.