Friday, August 10, 2007

McDonald's on the Hot Seat

The FTC issued a flurry of subpoenas to food, beverage and fast-food advertisers today demanding details about how they market their products to children. Included among the 44 major companies served are Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft Foods, and McDonald's. This development comes right on the heels of a report and press coverage earlier this week about the effectiveness of McDonald's branding strategies on kids' food preferences. In a study conducted at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, led by Thomas Robinson, researchers studied the food taste preferences of 63 kids between 3 and 5 years, who were enrolled in Head Start programs across San Mateo County. The kids sampled three types of McDonald's fast food -- including chicken nuggets, french fries and hamburgers -- as well as two types of food purchased at a grocery store (carrots and milk). Kids were given two equal portions of each of the five food items, but with a small difference--one (of each) was wrapped in a McDonald's wrapper, or placed in a McDonald's bag, while the other (of each) was wrapped in similar wrapping, but without the McDonald's logo. The kids were then randomly asked to taste first one and then the other of the five "identical, differently packaged, pairs of food samples" and pick which one they thought tasted better (with the option of answering that they thought they tasted the same). According to the study press release:
With four out of the five foods - chicken nuggets, fries, carrots and milk - significantly more children pegged the McDonald's product as tastier, despite the fact that the foods were exactly the same.

"The branding effect is very strong, even by only 3 to 5 years of age," said Thomas Robinson, MD, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Packard Children's and associate professor of pediatrics and of medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine.

The researchers also revealed that they selected McDonald's because it was a brand that kids were most likely to be familiar with. And they certainly found indications of a link between preference and exposure:
"We found that kids with more TVs in their homes and those who eat at McDonald's more frequently were even more likely to prefer the food in the McDonald's wrapper," said Robinson. "This is a company that knows what they're doing. Nobody else spends as much to advertise their fast-food products to children." McDonald's is estimated to spend more than $1 billion dollars per year on U.S. advertising.

You can read more coverage of the report here via Yahoo News, and here via AdAge. You can also watch a clip of Sussan Linn talking about the study on The Today Show. If you click on all three of these links, you'll see something pretty interesting...a slight, but important deviation in how the study's research design is represented. While the Stanford press release and Yahoo News both describe that the second, non-McDonald's sample was wrapped in "unbranded packages in the same color and style", the AdAge and Today Show coverage states that the second sample was "wrapped in plain paper." The Today Show includes a clip of some kids with food choices in front of them chowing down on McD's --not the study itself-- with fast food alongside tupperware containers and other variously packaged foods. The report I watched on Tuesday (Monday?) night, which aired on Global News, also reproduced the study but had the kids picking between McDonald's foods and foods wrapped in plain brown paper wrapping. I think that this inaccuracy is pretty significant, given that it implies that the study asked kids to pick between colorfully-packaged "restaurant food", which carries all the associations of "treats" "special occasions" and "price" (which can be confused with quality even by adults), and paper-bag food, with all of its associations with "generic", "school lunch" and "knock off". I think it's important that parents see that kids were choosing between two equally appealing, similarly-coded samples and that McDonald's still won out because the kids had specific feelings about that specific brand.

Another issue is whether this study is all that groundbreaking, considering the vast amounts of research that already establish fairly solid links between brand exposure (through media and advertising and culture) and kids' product preferences. What's so different about this study? The news media seems to think it has to do with the research methodology. According to Yahoo News, "While prior studies have looked at the impact of individual ads on kids, Robinson and colleagues set out to study the overall influence of a company's brand -- based on everything from advertising to toy premiums and word of mouth." Well, obviously this isn't exactly the case (there have definitely been studies of branding and branding campaigns, as well as studies of children's whole media environments), but applying such a comprehensive approach does represent something of a departure from the research to date. It's strange how much (on certain topics/methods) and how little (on other topics/methods) research exists on kids and advertising, considering how big an issue it appears to be within public consciousness. Anyway, I feel that there are links here to longer trends among the media in terms of how they represent the media effects debate, which you can read more about in this article by Steve Kline if you're interested.

No comments: