“Want children to eat carrot? Put it in [a] McDonald's wrapper.”Those interested in food marketing to children might recall media headlines like the one above about a 2007 study out of Stanford University that examined the influence of McDonald’s branding on the taste preferences of preschool children. In this study, 63 American preschool children tasted five “pairs” of food, including a McDonald’s hamburger, fries and Chicken McNugget, as well as baby carrots and milk. Each food “pair” was identical—although one portion was wrapped in McDonald’s packaging and the other in plain white wrapping. The researchers found that “3- to 5-year-olds preferred the taste of foods they perceived to be from McDonald’s”, and concluded that “substantial exposure to the McDonald’s brand” drives children’s taste preferences. Indeed, 54% of the children in the study said that even carrot sticks in McDonald’s packaging tasted better. As the journalist Lindsay Tanner affirmed:“Want children to eat carrot? Put it in [a] McDonald's wrapper.”
Now, this study makes for great headlines. But it isn’t necessarily great research. It’s hardly surprising that, when given the choice between plain packaging and something decorated, preschoolers like the prettier packaging. Stated differently, the study design fails to capture whether children’s tastes are influenced by the aesthetics of the packaging rather than the branding itself. It also does not reveal whether different types of branding impact children’s tastes.
In light of this, we redesigned the original study so that 65 Canadian preschool children selected between three different packaging “pairs”:
- McDonald’s verses plain (white) wrapping (as per the original study)
- McDonald’s versus colored (non-branded) wrapping; and
- McDonald’s versus Starbucks wrapping.
Not surprisingly, aesthetics matter, even to very young children. Preschoolers overall thought that the food samples in decorative wrappers “tasted best” compared to plain wrappers—even though the foods were identical.
Yet one must be careful not to presume that the preschoolers’ aesthetic preferences are actually brand preferences. Just like other consumers, children prefer food that comes in decorative wrappings regardless of whether the wrapping is “decorated” with McDonald’s branding, Starbucks branding or multi-colored polka-dots.
When choosing between food in McDonald’s branded wrapping and food in plain wrapping, the preschoolers in our study preferred the taste of McDonald's wrapped food (just as the Stanford study reported). However, when choosing between food in McDonald’s branded wrapping and food in a colorful wrapping, or between food in McDonald’s wrapping and food in Starbucks wrapping, children did not indicate a preference for McDonald’s-branded food. Children rely more on aesthetics than on branding when making choices: a colorful wrapper or a wrapper with an unfamiliar logo has equal appeal to a wrapper with a familiar logo.
A final point of note: many preschoolers in our study were familiar with the McDonald’s brand (almost half of the children identified it), whereas only 12.6% of children were able to identify Starbucks. Yet, for the preschoolers who tasted foods in McDonald’s wrapping versus Starbucks wrapping, the “more familiar” McDonald’s brand was not preferred. An equal percentage of children preferred McDonald’s burgers in Starbucks wrappings as in McDonald’s. For the chicken nuggets, fries and carrots, the majority of children indicated that the samples tasted the same. Yet for those children who did indicate a preference, more children preferred the taste of fries and carrots in the Starbucks wrapping over McDonald’s. Perhaps, then, the news headline for our study would be “Want children to eat fries or carrots? Put it in a Starbucks wrapper.”
Admittedly, this sounds absurd. What our findings suggest is the need to focus more attention on the important role of packaging in directing children’s food preferences. The Stanford study—and especially its subsequent newspaper coverage—made much of the fact that children preferred the taste of carrots if they thought they were from McDonald’s. Its authors conclude that “specific branding can alter young children’s taste preferences.” Yet when children in our study were given the option of carrots in McDonald’s wrapping or carrots in colorful wrapping, children liked the “colorful” carrots more. Appearance, rather than branding, appears to influence children’s taste preferences. Of course, this conclusion should not be used to argue against recommendations for limiting the commercial promotion of foods to children (I am against advertising to children on ethical grounds). However, when it comes to preschoolers and taste preferences, perhaps more focus should be directed to the wrappings around food—the packaging—rather than the particular brand upon it.
Charlene Elliott, PhD
Canada Research Chair
Food Marketing, Policy and Children's Health
Associate Professor, Communication
Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Kinesiology
University of Calgary
Elliott, C, Carruthers Den Hoed R, and Conlon, M (2013). Food branding and young children’s taste preferences: A reassessment. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 104(5). 364-368.
Robinson TN, Borzekowski DLG, Matheson DM, Kraemer HC (2007). Effects of fast food branding on young children's taste preferences. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.161(8). 792-797.