Shaping Youth Brandwashing Data Is Larger Than Stanford’s Study

mcdonalds-friesthumbnail.jpg“A new Stanford study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (here) demonstrates just how effective food marketing is in changing young children’s perceptions.” Gee, ya think?

Their study was funded by the biggies, RWJF and Stanford, with research showing “preschool children think that foods that come in a McDonald’s wrapper taste better than the exact same food in an unwrapped wrapper. Study author Dr. Tom Robinson notes that McDonald’s branding is so powerful that it actually physically altered the children’s perception of taste.”

Take a peek at McDonalds branding in the QSR industry mag and you’ll see why this doesn’t surprise me AT ALL…they’re masterful marketers that don’t spend megabucks for drill, folks. Science Daily proved this in spades last year. The media kids consume and the meals they eat are reflecting a “brandwashing ” element that would make any neuroscientist tracking this kids’ phenom cringe.

Shaping Youth has been making this ‘brandwashing’ correlation in our living labs for the last few years with HUNDREDS of kids of ALL ages in our own counter-marketing sessions, but have never tried the bait and switch packaging fake out like Dr. Robinson. That’s a new one, building in a branded taste correlation with quantifiable results.

Our sessions are geared to packaging too, but more about media literacy and deconstruction to motivate kids to eat better, using counter-marketing as well as positive enticements. (e.g. here’s a session on getting kids to eat green, another on packaging high fructose corn syrup pouch drinks, and reinforcement of the KFF research on media’s influence on food choice) Who knew that Shaping Youth’s data and sample size was larger than Stanford’s? Certainly not me.

Last week’s Stanford data focused on 63 low-income children ages 3-5 year from Head Start centers in San Mateo County. 63? That’s just a couple of classrooms for us! I tried to wait to report on this study until a full week had passed, but our readers kept squealing, “tell them what you’re doing fergawdsakes, you’re not Stanford, but you’ve got field data findings out the wazoo!” Hmn. Too true.

Ironically, at Shaping Youth, we counter-market the fast food factor, licensed character influence AND processed snack packs and food and beverage offerings well beyond McDonalds branding practices into new areas like energy drinks, “healthy salads that aren’t” and factoring in peer driven junk food allure stemming from ambient advertising and copious media intake. Alas, we even applied for grants at aligned LPFCH, but we were too fledgling as a nonprofit entity to qualify for hefty funding.

My, my, my…talk about ‘brand influence’ with that Stanford name attached!

Dr. Thomas Robinson’s research is splashed all over the AP Newswire, CNN, the Today show, and the media blogosphere with lively commentary (see Chicago Tribune) and resurrection of the usual ‘just say no’ parental responsibility debates.

Meanwhile, Shaping Youth has collected literally HUNDREDS of intake logs finding DIRECT evidence of correlation between what goes into kids’ minds and bodies, and received bupkiss in formal research funding because our nonprofit is “so new.”

No sour grapes, but you can see why we’re not opting to go the nonprofit grant route!

Anyway, considering this all took place in my own backyard, all I can say is:

“Yo! Dr. Robinson? We need to ‘do lunch!”

Not just a McDonalds Shrek “apple slices and milk” merchandising type of lunch…Let’s sit down and talk seriously about how to make these less than ‘fruitful’ efforts more effective by altering marketing spin into real life behavioral change.

We’ve run our “Dare to Compare” gross out game for good nutrition as a reality show format to delve into various food issues and branding targets among multiple demographics, socioeconomic levels and cultures and found particularly alarming data in high risk, low income, age impressionable youth without media literacy life skills.

Our counter-marketing intervention tactics have been tried as early as the 2nd grade level (not 3-5 year olds though) to demo hands-on what kids are doing to their bodies when they eat junk food. (the ‘ewww’ fear factor food approach) and as you loyal readers know, we’ve had some incredible outcomes. (82% retention on the last round!)

I guess it’s high time we start to shout about it, rather than keep gathering MORE and more data in our pilot programs at our pre-launch phase to ensure we’ll be taken seriously as a new nonprofit tackling branding issues from the inside out!

We do a lot of preference/packaging media literacy in terms of “eye candy” and lots of blindfolded taste tests, but never a ‘bait and switch’ taste corollary, so thanks, doc, we’ll take a look at that too! That’s pretty volatile neuroscience, especially with wee ones, egad.

Mind you, I have no delusions that industry innovation, fast food giants, or even mass manufacturers happily promoting candy bars for breakfast with new and improved self-imposed guidelines should lead the way here…Nor do I think a nanny state of regulatory lock down of options makes sense. But when it comes to children…public health is at stake and current industry responsibility and accountability is still only a fraction of where we need to be to turn this tanker around, so to speak.

As far as a ‘report’ of regulatory efforts, our Washington correspondent, Rebecca Scritchfield will be doing an in-depth analysis of the recent July 18 FTC food panel findings which we glossed over with this interim Weighing In webcast, knowing she’d be bringing us a full balanced deconstruction of food industry regulatory efforts soon.

Rebecca offers Shaping Youth solid, centrist thinking from both a dietary standpoint (note her Johns Hopkins pedigree, speaking of brand equity) and food policy deconstruction, enabling us to integrate food industry, government and public health with critical thinking skills beyond our own Shaping Youth media/marketing analysis.

Stay tuned for her kids food/marketing analysis in a guest editorial coming soon.

Meanwhile, Dr. Robinson and the Stanford team? Let’s do an in-depth interview with you and share our own findings, as we can assist your efforts with our empirical data. (our ‘media munchies’ intake logs would be of vital interest to you, I’m sure!)

When I get back in town (I’m working in L.A. all week) this is a must for BOTH of our research areas, since I haven’t touched the 3-5 preschool demographic yet in terms of assessing the level of brandwashing…But what we’ve got already is notable. Let’s team up and combine forces, shall we?

p.s. Parents and colleagues, please continue to ping me to sound off, but a reminder, that it’s more effective when you post it on the blog for ALL to benefit.

Additional Related Articles (Not Embedded Above)
NYTimes: If It Says McDonalds It Must Be Good

BlogHer’s Amanda Schaffer: Mesmerized by Golden Arches

Fox News: Moms Want Your Kids to Eat Their Veggies? Put ‘Em in a McDonalds Wrapper



  1. The results of the Stamford study are no surprise to me, other than how many people seemingly didn’t know it already!

    In the 1970’s, my father would complain that I would most certainly eat my fish dinner if it came wrapped in McDonald’s paper. While he failed to comprehend was that I disliked all seafood – then and now – he knew the basic results of this study over 30 years ago.

    The problem I have with this study is why this is being seen as important today.

    As a child, I never wanted a Fillet-o-Fish from McD’s, but I would have gladly scoffed a cheeseburger. Today, my two sons (11 and 4) would probably prefer driver-thru take-out over a home cooked meal. Why not? they’re kids! But they get McD’s (or other fast food) as a treat, maybe once or twice a month.

    Why is it we try to blame companies for providing goods and services (not to mention jobs), not the parents, who hold the purse strings (figuratively and literally) over what their children eat? Just because my kids want fast-food every time – even if its marketed to them – doesn’t mean they’ll get it.

    The basic question is this: Who is in charge in most families, the parents or the kids?

  2. Whew! Charlie on the PA-TPK ‘stole my thunder’ with his ‘basic question’–as I continue to wage this battle in my own mind re: parental responsibility. His point about “who holds the purse strings” is also really On Target…. Yet, I’ve become semi-convinced (thanks to you, Ms. J)that parents today are faced with a MUCH more pervasive ‘media blitz’ on ALL fronts– (food’s only one of MANY)than our parents EVER did.–So keep up the good work with your crusade and your more-valid-sounding tests!—(And Charlie deserves kudos for being a caring, interested Dad, who sounds as if he’s On Track and In Charge! Would that there were more of these parents!)

  3. The “just say no” parental piece is a logical and familiar retort, but fast food intake and obesity in general is not often a singular parental control variable…It gets quite complicated when you blend in access/location, (or lack thereof) safety/neighborhood barriers to physical fitness, socioeconomic/financial factors (marketing 2 double cheeseburgers for $2) time constraints, culture, and on & on…In short, there’s a reason why certain demographic communities are categorized as “high risk” for morbid obesity.

    As for this particular TASTE study, you’re absolutely right that packaging as “eye candy” has always been a given, and it’s common sense that preference will favor the product with the notable wrapper, (goes for grocery items too, as ‘presentation is key’)…

    …But this study leapfrogged into TASTE perception at a very young age, which is a bit surreal when you think about the psychographic influences at play here (many people have suggested we ‘brand carrots’ and healthier foods this way).

    If kids begin to free associate what’s good and what’s not by brand, context or flavor critical thinking becomes inherently flawed.

    Doesn’t matter whether you’re reacting to a perception, like “lemonade is ‘healthy” (some is, some isn’t!) or a blatantly misleading branding boondoggle, “Sunny D is orange juice” perception (can’t begin to tell you the countless kids AND parents that fell for that one, when there’s zero juice in it!) then we’re reacting to a marketing campaign and image with our brandwashed brains and tongues.

    Even more disturbing is that right now there’s huge market confusion out there far beyond the fast food scene when items are positioned as healthier choices even though many are FAR from it. (e.g. nutrition bars, 100 cal pouch packs, etc.)

    That means we have the potential not only to foul up kids’ nutrition but undermine parents who normally would ‘just say no’ to ‘junk food’ and instead reach for a ‘healthy’ snack that’s equally poor, yet they’ve been brandwashed into believing it’s actually better for their kids. (kind of like those self-awarded seals of approval by food giants who come up with their own guidelines)

    There’s a responsibility and accountability issue for certain, but personally, I feel it’s a shared and universal one in the name of public health and children’s well-being. Brandwashing is powerful, powerful stuff…media literacy and deconstruction is a must-have for the times.

    p.s. Here’s a fun pbs kids interactive primer on label lingo for kids, to begin to gain a brandwashing buffer:

    Thanks for the comments, all…Keep ’em comin’…

  4. New evidence/study on the toll of obesity…sigh. Like we need more????? argh.

    “F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing America (120pp)

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