How powerful is marketing? How young are we when we first feel its effects? Can marketing really change the way we perceive the things we buy? Earlier today I shared a passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink that explored how marketing works. A recent study funded by Stanford University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation demonstrated that advertising influences even young children.

Lindsey Tanner of the Associated Press writes:

Anything made by McDonald’s tastes better, preschoolers said in a study that powerfully demonstrates how advertising can trick the taste buds of young children. Even carrots, milk and apple juice tasted better to the kids if it was wrapped in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches.


Study author Dr. Tom Robinson said the kids’ perception of taste was “physically altered by the branding.” The Stanford University researcher said it was remarkable how children so young were already so influenced by advertising. The study involved 63 low-income children ages 3 to 5 from Head Start centers in San Mateo County, Calif. Robinson believes the results would be similar for children from wealthier families.

The study included three McDonald’s menu items — hamburgers, chicken nuggets and french fries — and store-bought milk or juice and carrots. Children got two identical samples of each food on a tray, one in McDonald’s wrappers or cups and the other in plain, unmarked packaging. The kids were asked if they tasted the same or if one was better. (Some children didn’t taste all the foods.)

McDonald’s-labeled samples were the clear favorites. French fries were the biggest winner; almost 77% said the labeled fries tasted best while only 13% preferred the others. Fifty-four percent preferred McDonald’s-wrapped carrots versus 23% who liked the plain-wrapped sample.

When I see my young friends who love Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, I wonder how they’d feel about generic toys of the same nature. Are the kids obsessed with the stuff because of the branding? Or do they just like trains and construction equipment? And what about those Disney princesses? I suspect there’s some of both going on, but that marketing plays a key role in creating desire, in creating young consumers.

[USA Today: Marketing tricks tots' taste buds]

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