Kids, advertising: My bestest brand

Whether it’s McDonald’s or Mitsubishi, children as young as three are quick to identify a brand and decipher its message

Give me back that filet-o-fish, give me that fish.
What if it were you hanging up on this wall? If it were you in that sandwich,
you wouldn’t be laughing at all.

by a blue, wall-mounted fish, the jingle comes from a McDonald’s ad, one Liz
Gumbinner’s daughters, two-and-a-half-year old Sage and four-and-a-half-year old
Thalia, know by heart.

girls also like Kia Sorento ads – the ones with the giant sock monkey – and
know the Disney castle logo because it appears at the start of their DVDs.

now, thanks to commercials, they’re asking for a trip to Disney World, the new Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland movie and a bunk bed [from] the Pottery Barn
catalogue, complete with Star Wars
sheets. Also, those old horrible recalled Aqua Dots, because the ads are saved
on DVR with some old episodes of Yo
Gabba Gabba,” says Ms. Gumbinner.

New York-based freelancer calls it karma: She makes ads. Ms Gumbinner has
worked for Cabbage Patch Kids, Universal theme parks, Old Navy, Foot Locker,
Ray Ban and Mitsubishi.

she isn’t surprised, parents may be cautioned by new research that suggests children
as young as three recognise brands and what they symbolise, a much younger age
than was previously theorised – seven and eight.

study, published in the journal Psychology & Marketing, found that children
between the ages of three and five show an “emerging ability” to use ads to
judge which products will be the most “fun” and make them popular – even though
they can’t read yet.

only do they understand what the brand is, they understand that this is
something they can use in their day-to-day lives. Their understanding helps
them to negotiate the environment,” said study author Bettina Cornwell, a
professor of marketing in sport management at the University of Michigan.

the first part of the study, the researchers showed 38 children logos for 50
brands as disparate as Coca-Cola, Looney Toons and Band-Aid and asked, “Have
you seen this before?” and “What types of things do they make?” as well as
other questions about the products’ value.

average recognition rate was 39 per cent, and the most commonly recognised
brand was McDonald’s (93 per cent), followed closely by toys such as Lego (75
per cent) and soda products.

food was described by the three to five-year-olds as “fun, exciting and tasty.”
Cola brands were fun because “the bubbles are fun” and “lots of people like

researchers also showed another 42 children a board featuring brand logos,
including McDonald’s, and asked them to pick out images associated with the
company – a French fry box, “drive thru” sign and Hamburglar. Many children
could match the images with the logo, probably because they’d seen it each time
they dug into a Happy Meal or pulled up at the restaurant, Professor Cornwell believed.

a ton of branding specifically designed for that pre-school audience,” said
Josh Golin, associate director of Campaign for a Commerical-Free Childhood, a
Boston-based organisation that raises awareness about kids’ marketing.

a customer formed at that age is worth more to a brand.”

Cornwell and her co-authors want lawmakers to take a closer look at fast food
branding aimed at young children.

a policy perspective, we need to recognise that this is not being lost on the
very young. The under-six, under-seven, under-eight crowd is very capable of
understanding brand messages and utilising brand information in their lives.”

the UK, laws prevent companies from advertising during times of day when
children are most likely to watch television. In Quebec, laws prohibit advertisers
from marketing to children under the age of 13. The law looks at “the nature
and intended purpose” of the goods advertised and the time and place the ad is

Ms Gumbinner believes some industry regulation is needed, she said the
“ultimate gatekeepers” are parents, not advertisers.

[daughter] cannot walk herself to the McDonald’s and buy a Big Mac without my
help,” said Ms. Gumbinner, who is also editor-in-chief of, a
shopping and design blog for parents.

to Ms Gumbinner’s occupation, her children have the inside track: “I tell them
that my job is to write commercials, that there are people writing those
things, and that our job is to get people to like the product. And that that’s
why they need to get information about those products from places other than
the commercials. They understand that.”

label-consciousness and cable-control aside, parents acknowledge that the final
say often lies with their children’s peers at daycare or kindergarten.

Cornwell recalls the day her four-year-old son David came home from preschool
and demanded Pokémon cards: “I just know I need to have some.”

“Other children had
them and, in order to be involved, he needed to have some.”

Children Branding

Research suggests that children as young as three recognise brands and what they symbolise