Young Children and Advertising

by on April 11, 2016

in Child,Monthly,News

It has been said that we are students and teachers to each other. Not so long ago a Grade 8 student, who is a patient of mine, taught me a fascinating lesson. Will, a student at the Red Deer Lake School, participated in a science fair and his curious mind raised the question of how children between the ages of two and six years recognize logos.

Will, a keen lover of nature, studied 71 children by showing them flashcards not only of corporate brand logos, but also pictures of nature items laminated on 3×5 cards. The corporate logos on ten 3×5 cards included these brands: Starbucks, Superman, Batman, Shell, Toyota, Disney, McDonald’s, Nike, Apple and Pepsi. Some of the nature pictures included: a white tailed deer, a coyote, the Alberta Wild Rose, Saskatoon Berries, a Chickadee and a Peregrine Falcon.

Will conducted his research at daycare’s and kindergartens and also worked in association with the teachers who set up the order in which the preschoolers were tested. His research attracted the attention of the parents of some of the day care children and also the members of Will’s camera club. I encouraged him to do some peer-to-peer teaching in various schools in Alberta.

Overall 35% of the corporate logos were identified correctly; 7% of the nature responses were correct. Out of all the correct answers, 82% were correct logo identifications and 17% were correct nature identifications.

Logos of Superman, Batman, Apple, McDonald’s and Disney ranked high, while the Nike logo ranked the lowest.

Out of the nature group only the white tailed deer and the chickadee fared “well” at 4.5%, but none of the children were able to identify the Alberta Rose or the Saskatoon plant. After Will read Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, the data of his own research made complete sense to him and he was less surprised that there was a 3 to 1 ratio of logos over nature recognition. (Louv, a popular keynote speaker at pediatric conferences, coined the term NDD—Nature Deficit Disorder. In his national bestseller book he explains why a child in nature is an endangered species.)

Professor Bettina Cornwell at the University of Michigan published data in the journal Psychology and Marketing on children’s brand symbolism understanding. The bottom line is that before ABCs, toddlers learn Toyota, McDonalds and Disney.

In professor Cornwell’s study done with children ages three to five years, McDonalds ranked the highest. Children were able to identify Ronald McDonald just by his legs and feet alone. When children were asked to assess how popular certain brands were among their friends they gave answers like “McDonalds has a playground so you can play there and everyone likes you.”

Recognizing the brand and liking it is not always the same. One child even said that you will have no friends when you go to McDonald’s because “all they have is hamburgers and you’ll get too heavy and nobody likes you.”

Research has shown that children younger than 8 years are cognitively and psychologically defenseless against advertising. They do not understand the intent to sell and frequently accept advertising claims at face value. In the late 1970’s the American Federal Trade Commission held hearings and concluded that it was unfair and deceptive to advertise to children younger than six years, but that banning such ads are impractical.

Meanwhile Sweden and Norway forbid all advertising directed at children younger than 12 years; Greece bans toy advertising until after 10PM and Denmark and Belgium severely restrict advertising aimed at children. In Canada, only Quebec has taken steps to limit advertising to young children.

Marketing experts have studied the possibility to reframe some of the negative data into a positive outcome. Could it be that marketing healthy foods as a public policy could improve the habits of families? For parents and teachers who are interested in using media to encourage healthy eating, there are some promising resources. (See fruits and veggies more matters)

At Harvard’s, Center on Media and Child Health, Dr. Michael Rich provides useful resources to parents and teachers who are keen to improve children’s media literacy. When asked by a parent how to talk to a five year old about TV ads, Dr. Rich provided this answer: “So what do you say to your 5 year old son? Talk to him directly about the ad he sees—ask him why it caught his attention; was it the colors, music, famous person or funny cartoon? Then ask him how the ad makes him feel; does it make him feel happy, and excited? Next, figure out together what the ad is selling and whether your son would want the product and why or why not. Breaking down advertisements together will help your son develop critical thinking skills – which will help him deal with not only commercials, but any information he receives.”

For more information on this Harvard-based resource visit


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