CHICAGO -- Anything made by
Even carrots, milk, and apple juice tasted better to the children when they were wrapped in the familiar packaging of the Golden Arches.
The study had youngsters sample identical McDonald's foods in name-brand and unmarked wrappers. The unmarked foods always lost the taste test.
"You see a McDonald's label and kids start salivating," said Diane Levin, a childhood development specialist who campaigns against advertising to children. She had no role in the research.
Levin said it was "the first study I know of that has shown so simply and clearly what's going on with [marketing to] young children."
Study author Dr. Tom Robinson said the children's perception of taste was "physically altered by the branding." The Stanford University researcher said it was remarkable how children so young were 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 research, appearing in August's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, was funded by Stanford and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The study will probably stir more debate over the movement to restrict ads to children. It comes less than a month after 11 major food and drink companies, including McDonald's, announced new curbs on marketing to children under 12.
McDonald's says the only Happy Meals it will promote to young children will contain fruit and have fewer calories and less fat.
"This is an important subject and McDonald's has been actively addressing it for quite some time," said company spokesman Walt Riker. "We've always wanted to be part of the solution and we are providing solutions."
But Dr. Victor Strasburger, an author of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy urging limits on marketing to children, said the study shows that too little is being done.
"It's an amazing study and it's very sad," Strasburger said.
"Advertisers have tried to do exactly what this study is talking about -- to brand younger and younger children, to instill in them an almost obsessional desire for a particular brand-name product," he said.
Just two of the 63 children studied said they had never eaten at McDonald's, and about one-third ate there at least weekly.
The study included three McDonald's menu items -- hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and 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 participants were asked if they tasted the same or if one was better. (Some children did not taste all the foods.)
McDonald's-labeled samples were clear favorites. Fries were the biggest winner; almost 77 percent said the labeled fries tasted best while only 13 percent preferred the others.
Fifty-four percent preferred McDonald's-wrapped carrots versus 23 percent who liked the plain-wrapped sample.
Fewer than one-fourth of the children said both samples of all foods tasted the same.
Pradeep Chintagunta, a University of Chicago marketing professor, said a fairer comparison might have gauged children's preferences for the McDonald's label versus another familiar brand, such as Mickey Mouse. "I don't think you can necessarily hold this against" McDonald's, he said, since the goal of marketing is to build familiarity and sell products.