Even a 3-Year-Old Understands the Power of Advertising

Having the "right" brand of jeans or the latest gadget isn't just an annoying trait of teenagers (not to mention their parents). New research found that even preschoolers are brand-conscious and can recognize kiddie brand logos and products.

"Children as young as three are feeling social pressure and understand that consumption of certain brands can help them through life," said lead researcher Anna McAlister of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Findings like this show us that we need to think about materialism developing in very young children."

She added, "We also need to realize that it's not completely 'safe' to leave a 3-year-old alone with a TV set without proper supervision or a parent to help them to understand that they are on the receiving end of targeted advertising."

The B-word

Until now, most research had suggested children don't have an understanding of brands until age 8 or older. But the few studies that have looked at younger kids often relied on methods that weren't kid-friendly, McAlister said.

For instance, some flat-out asked the 3-year-olds something along the lines of, "What is your favorite brand?" Many of these children can't read yet and don't yet know the "B-word," McAlister said.

Another past study showed young kids pictures of a child wearing either Walmart or Nike jeans and asked if the young participants wanted to play with the child in the ad.

"My argument is kids don't care what kids are wearing. Put a Lego and another brand of toy in their hand, and I can almost guarantee you if he's holding a Lego they're going to want to play with him," McAlister told LiveScience. "What matters are toys and soft drinks and fast food."

Kid brands

McAlister and her colleague T. Bettina Cornwell of the University of Michigan tested brands targeted at young kids and also used pictures to help participants communicate their understanding of brands.

In the first part of the study, 38 children ages 3 to 5 who lived in Brisbane, Australia, looked at brand-name logos for 50 brands across 16 product categories, such as toys, electronics, clothes and fast food. To assess brand recognition, researchers asked kids various questions, including: "Have you seen this before?" and "What types of things do they make?" Kids looked at products geared toward their audience as well as those targeted at the 12-and-up group.

Results varied across products and brands, ranging from zero recognition to 93 percent for a fast-food brand. As expected, they were most familiar with the kiddie brands, recognizing them more than 50 percent of the time compared with just over 20 percent recognition for brands not specifically targeted at their age group.

Judgmental tots

To figure out whether children really "got" the brands, in the next part of the study the researchers had 42 3-to-6-year olds determine which products belonged to which brand. For example, a researcher showed the kids two boards, one with the McDonald's logo and the other of Burger King. Then, participants had to place smaller picture cards of various products, such as one showing a French fry box or a Hamburglar figure, onto the appropriate board.

Brands also included toys (Hot Wheels, Lego, My Little Pony and Bratz), soft drinks (Coke and Pepsi), and entertainment (Disney and Warner Brothers).

Kids answered seven questions about each brand, including its perceived quality ("Are their things great or terrible or somewhere in between?"), how it related to a user's attributes like popularity ("If another child has [brand], how many friends will s/he have … lots or just a few or somewhere in between?"), and purchase intent.

"Surprisingly, there were children as young as three who were making very strong judgments when comparing McDonald's and Burger King," McAlister said.

Here are some examples of kids' responses:

When asked about Lego, one child said, "It's really fun and I have to have it. If I have it everyone wants to come to my house to play. If you don't have it they maybe don't like you."

  • When asked about product quality, kids' answers included: "Coke is great. The bubbles are really fun and you can blow bubbles and it's like a volcano," and "I don't like it. It's terrible because it's [Coke's] black and I like juice."
  • When asked about popularity and the brand, kids answered, "McDonald’s has a playground so you can play there and everyone likes you," and "Nope, he won't have any friends because nobody wants to eat burgers all the time."
  • Overall, 28 percent of the children answered more than half of the questions for each brand in a meaningful way on a consistent basis, McAlister said.

"So they seemed to have a half-decent idea about what was going on. It's still not 'mastered' at this age. We didn't have a single child who could answer all seven questions in a meaningful way for every brand we looked at," McAlister said.

Brand savvy

The kids who were best at understanding the brands were also kids with more advanced social skills and a particular type of cognitive development.

The specific social skills involved whether a child was able to think about others' thoughts and use that to predict what that person might do. If you asked a kid who had this so-called theory of mind what his mom would want for her birthday, he might say, "She likes perfume." A child who doesn't have this ability might say, "Mom wants ice cream," or "Mom wants a Barbie doll," McAlister explained, adding these kids just talk about what they want.

As for how social savvy could relate to understanding brands, McAlister said, "Children who are able to think about the thoughts of other people are better able to dig out a toy and say 'I'm going to take this Lego to preschool because other kids at school will like it … and think I'm cool.'"

The kids with brand know-how also showed a higher level of executive function, which is a cognitive ability that has to do partly with categorization and grouping things together.

McAlister says the findings could help to tease out why children like certain brands and products, and why, for instance, they'll go so far as throwing temper tantrums over these desires.

Parents can also take note:  

"If you have a feeling that your child is very mature socially, you might want to put some more effort into monitoring their TV time or access to advertisements, because those are the kids who are really taking a lot away when they see an ad," McAlister said.

The research is detailed in the March issue of the journal Psychology & Marketing.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.