As adults we’re inundated with visuals of food brands, and you don’t even need to see the word “McDonald’s” anymore to recognize a McDonald’s product. Sadly, while we might think that our awareness of brands comes later in life, new research says children can recognize brands too and, what’s more, brand recognition could make children more likely to be obese.
What’s notable about this study, which was carried out by researchers at Michigan University and is published this month in the journal Appetite, is how early brand recognition starts.
The test group in this study involved children between the ages of three and five. The participants were given images of food items, packaging and cartoon characters and then asked to match those items with their corresponding brand logos. The results were mixed. Some children struggled, but some as young as three were able to match to the brand logos with relative ease. Isn’t it a little scary that a three year-old knows her brands? Even scarier is that children who were better at identifying the brands also tended to have a higher Body Mass Index (BMI).
“We found the relationship between brand knowledge and BMI to be quite robust,” said Anna McAlister, assistant professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University in a release.
Maybe that’s not so surprising. If a child is consuming a lot of junk food, there’s no denying that it has both a physical and mental effect, and that might only worsen: the more a child eats of a certain brand, the more familiar he or she becomes with that brand, and the more his or her preferences are solidified, which sets up a vicious circle.
That said there might be other factors at play here, like the television. If children are exposed to TV at a young age, that in turn exposes them to food advertising which shapes how they think about food. So, to deal with child obesity we have to do more than just promote physical activity and healthy eating, we have to limit the marketing messages that are being fed to children.
“The consistent relationship between brand knowledge and BMI suggests that limiting advertising exposure might be a step in the right direction too,” said McAlister.
Given the results of the study, it seems that limiting exposure has to start at an early age because once children establish what they like and don’t like, those are food preferences that can stick with them for the rest of their lives.
“What we’re trying to show here is just how young kids are when they develop their theory of food,” McAlister said. “As early as 3 years of age, kids are developing a sense of what food means to them.”
Taking that seriously, wouldn’t it be great if children could grow up naming types broccoli and potatoes instead of McDonald’s and Fruit Loops?
Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral
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