The Situationist

McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right

Posted by Chloe Cockburn on August 8, 2007

McDonalds big mac costume for kids - http://shinymedia.blogs.com/photos/uncategorized/mcdonalds_big_mac_child.jpgThe issue of marketing good to children is a tricky one for food companies, whose profit margins depend on being able to woo young customers, but whose public relations concerns require them to advocate healthier eating for kids. Three weeks ago, eleven of America’s biggest food and drink companies announced that they would adopt rules to limit advertising to children under the age of 12, including not using popular movie characters in connection with unhealthy products. This move anticipated an FTC hearing that sought to increase pressure on food companies to address the child obesity epidemic through responsible marketing. The McDonald’s spokesperson at the hearing claimed that McDonald’s would market only healthy foods to children under 12.

Despite this voluntary agreement to limit their marketing through some mediums, companies are not abandoning the children’s market. At a recent conference, major food companies gathered to hear tips from marketing specialists about how to work around limitations on marketing in England, where new regulation has sharply cut down on television commercials. Alternative tactics focus on the internet and cell phones, finding ways to encourage children to market products to their friends through games and contests.

The strong power of marketing extends beyond persuading a child to choose one kind of food over another. New Scientist reports on a study conducted by Dina Borzekowski at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in Baltimore and her colleagues, funded by Stanford University, which looked at the effect of McDonald’s packaging on pre-schoolers’ perception of the taste of food. Children said that food wrapped in McDonalds packaging tasted better than food that was not wrapped in the packaging, despite the fact that the two food samples were identical (and both from McDonalds). From the child’s perspective, she is simply choosing the food that tastes better. However, the study indicates that the McDonalds logo is generating that perception.

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Fast food branding makes children prefer happy meals

by Roxanne Khamsi

Fast food branding really does make food more appetising to children. A study has revealed that pre-school kids prefer foods wrapped in McDonalds packaging over the same snacks wrapped in unmarked packaging.

The finding gives all the more reason to limit the marketing of fast foods to youngsters, say the researchers who conducted the study. But they also add that it suggests that powerful branding could help sell more nutritious healthy foods to a generation of increasingly overweight kids.

Dina Borzekowski at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in Baltimore, Maryland, US, and her colleagues asked 63 preschoolers, aged three to five, to sample two meals, each consisting of a chicken nugget, a quarter of a hamburger, french fries, two baby carrots and a small cup of milk.

Baby eating McDonalds fries - http://www.perplexingtimes.com/media/story153.jpg

Although both meals came from a local McDonalds, only one of them appeared in its original packaging. Researchers presented items from the other meal in plain wrappers, which lacked the company’s distinctive logo.

In most cases children said they tasted a difference between the two meals, and they overwhelmingly preferred the McDonalds-branded foods.

Commercial influence

For example, 76 per cent favoured the fries presented in the branded packaging, compared with 13 per cent who liked the unbranded fries better. And while 60 per cent of the children preferred the McDonalds-branded chicken nuggets, only 10 per cent favoured the nuggets presented in plain wrapping.

“It’s no surprise that branding works,” says Borzekowski. “What’s interesting about these results is to see how strongly it affects the three- to five-year-olds.”

The study also found that children in homes with more televisions were more likely to show a preference for the branded meal, suggesting that fast-food commercials exert a strong influence.

“It just shows how difficult it is for parents to fight the battle alone,” says Kathryn Montgomery, an expert on children and media at American University in Washington DC.

Experts have estimated that the food and beverage industries spend more than $10 billion each year to market products to US children. “They could just as easily use marketing to support parents in their efforts to feed kids a healthy diet,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest based in Washington DC.

Healthy Alternative

Borzekowski points out that the children in the study were twice as likely to prefer the McDonalds-branded carrots as the plain-packaged ones. This suggests that marketing savvy could perhaps convince youngsters to make healthful choices. Some companies have already begun experimenting with this tactic by using Mickey Mouse cartoons to sell sliced fruit and placing Curious George stickers on bananas.

Last month McDonalds announced it would shift its advertising targeted to children under the age of 13 to focus on the 375-calorie Happy Meal, which it says meets current dietary standards outlined by the government.

Nutritionists hope that curbing fast-food television ads will help reverse the obesity epidemic among youngsters. But new forms of cellphone and internet marketing mean that adolescents are increasingly exposed to junk-food ads. “My guess is that the effects [of ads] might even increase with time,” says Thomas Robinson at the Stanford Prevention Research Center in California, who co-authored the new study with Borzekowski.

Journal reference: Archives of Pediatrics (vol 161, p792-797)

Ronald McDonald dancing with kids - http://www.tasteofplano.com/images/ronald-mcdonalds.jpg* * *

Limiting marketing to children on certain mediums like television during popular children’s shows may not go far enough in addressing the situation that fosters dangerous eating habits. McDonald’s has said that the only Happy Meals it will promote to children will be healthier options that contain fruit. However, if the brand itself causes kids to think that the food tastes better, then whether or not the company markets specific products to kids may not matter as much. Regulating the effects of this situation may prove to be far more difficult than anticipated.

For a sample of other Situationist posts about the effects of advertising on consumers see Banner Ads Really Work,The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain,and Another Reason Not To Watch Drug Commercials. For an excellent book detailing the food industry’s odious methods of marketing to kids, see Susan Linn’s “Consuming Kids.” Click here for a recent New York Times article about Kellogg’s announcement that it would phase out advertising certain products to young children (apparently, though not explicitly, in response to the threat of lawsuits).

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