"The point is," she said, "they're using the brand to assign a quality. And they can do this for products, too. They tell us the things Coca-Cola makes are great because 'they're fizzy and people like them.' It doesn't matter if we agree with the child's judgment. What matters is that they're using the brand to make it. No one expected to see this kind of behavior until they were about 8, and it's starting much earlier."
Even the sharpest child's brand understanding does tend to be rudimentary, which makes them easier to manipulate. Most kids learn early on to consider McDonald's products a tasty treat. But this doesn't only mean they will whine for Big Macs. It turns out that if you stick a McDonald's label on carrots, kids will tell you that they taste better. With branding as pervasive as it is, and children's drive to classify so strong, it's more practical to use the power of brands for good, rather than designate them evil and attempt—no doubt in vain—to exorcize them from children's lives. Michelle Obama has called on corporate food-makers who've already staked a claim to the "yummy" label in the minds of many kids to produce "products that actually are healthy—products that can help shape the health habits of an entire generation." She readily acknowledges the power of the brand. "If there is anyone here who can sell food to our kids, it's you. You know what gets their attention. You know what makes that lasting impression," she said. "You know what gets them to drive their parents crazy in the grocery store. And I'm here today to ask you to use that knowledge and that power to our kids' advantage." Disney is already there—its "Disney Garden" line has 250 offerings, and sales of bagged apples at one grocery store were up 47 percent during a High School Musical promotion. Obama wants more brands to follow suit.
If the idea that marketers have that huge of an influence over what our children eat makes your skin crawl, that's because you're taking this too personally. As Gopnik said, "If you're already worried about this, you probably don't need to be, and if you've never worried about it at all, maybe you should." The kids who are most at risk are those whose parents don't—for reasons of time, awareness, or education—limit a child's exposure to marketing or talk about the advertising they see. Low-income kids have higher rates of obesity, and so do kids who see more junk-food commercials. That's the biggest argument in support of limiting direct marketing to kids, but the idea that we could shield all kids (not just those with concerned parents) strikes Alison Gopnik as "pretty unlikely. Children are extremely good at this, and it's important to them to ask, 'How do I divvy things up in my culture?' " Kids need to understand brands, and they will. What we owe them isn't protection. Rather, it'sbrands that promote decent, healthy products, and an education that promotes a healthy understanding of why and how those brands are working so hard to sell us on their stuff.
In a perfect world, some of the funds allocated toward preventing childhood obesity might go to teaching newly aware consumers to pay attention to the man behind the curtain—a little Jiminy Cricket-like Mr. Shill, using the results of another of McAlister's studies to ask questions of young kids that they can understand. Who's telling the story in that commercial? What does the McDonald's man want you to do? What does he want your mom to do? Mr. Shill, on the door of every grocery and toy store, showing up Schoolhouse Rock-style after every good cartoon and waving cheerfully from a few billboards, could be an ever-present reminder that we can love Walt Disney without buying everything he has to offer.
Mr. Shill could help us, as a society, to have our cake and eat it too. After all, we secretly love our ads—we laud them at the Oscars, we handicap them for the Super Bowl, and we're nostalgic for the commercials of our past. (Hey Mikey! He likes it!) We love brands, and the many and varied things those brands and their advertising support, from PBS Kids to American Idol. We would not be better off without them. (Want to disagree? The truly pure of heart will just have to write me a nice letter, since ever-more public venues, from Slate's comments section to YouTube, are ad-tainted.) We brand, we advertise, we consume, and our world goes around. You can think that's sad, but you're soaking in it. The best possible thing to market to our already savvy kids would be a hyperawareness of who wants to sell them a Zac Efron avocado—and why they're buying it.