A new study released this month examined how well a group of 3- to 5-year-olds were able to recognize "child-oriented" brands. The answer—very able, thank you—is a parent's worst nightmare: Disney has almost certainly already colonized your 3-year-old's brain. McDonald's has planted a flag in there, too, along with My Little Pony and Pepsi and even Toyota. Preschoolers recognize brand names and symbols, and they are increasingly willing and able to make judgments about products and people based on associations with those brands, found the researchers at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and the University of Michigan.
That's the usual set-up for yet another article ringing the death knell for childhood innocence. And this is the part where you rush out and yank your kids away from the pernicious influence of the big, bad marketing machine. Everyone knows that advertising is bad for kids, right? It makes them putty in the hands of the purveyors of corn syrup and artificial coloring, and inspires them to want things that will only make them more stupid. We don't want kids to learn to recognize the golden arches. We want them to learn things that are useful and that help them function in our culture. We want kids learning things that support their ability to learn even more.
Which, it turns out, is exactly what identifying brands helps them do. Adults use branding as a shorthand to narrow choices and locate particular items or qualities they're seeking. In order to keep from being overwhelmed by choice and information on a daily basis, kids need to learn to do the same. Far from a lazy acceptance of spoon-fed culture, early recognition of the Hamburglar is proof of small, keen intellects hard at work decoding their environment.
The preschoolers in Anna McAlister and Bettina Cornwell's study, "Children's Understanding of Brand Symbolism," were almost all able to place a card representing the Hamburglar in a McDonald's category (along with cards for easier items like products and restaurants). Apart from suggesting that those children had some exposure to McDonald's that went beyond marketing (where you just don't see much of the Hamburglar anymore), the ability to place a more tangentially related item in a category reflects just how strongly children feel the urge to organize the world around them and how little information they need to slot a new piece of information neatly into its category. That's a necessary skill in a complex society, and one our human brains seem to be uniquely suited to handle.
"Learning to classify things by name is a deep part of learning language," says Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby. "We found that kids are more likely to use the words we give them to classify things than the physical appearance of the thing itself. In one study, we took four blocks, two yellow and two blue, and designated three blocks as 'blickets' and one as 'not a blicket.' The first blicket made our box light up, and kids chose another "blicket" as more likely to make the box work again, rather than the block of the same color. They went with our arbitrary category over what would seem like a more obvious distinction." Big brands are ubiquitous in our culture, and because their names and accompanying imagery appear again and again in different contexts, Gopnik says kids, essentially, have a need to sort it out. "These things have something important in common: what inference should I make about them all?" It may be that the earlier we can answer that question, the better off we are.
Kids who get branding at a young age tend to be what we think of as bright kids. McAlister and Cornwell found that the more sophisticated a child's "executive function" (which covers growing abilities to sort and reason rather than actual knowledge), the more likely that child was to have begun using brands as in the same ways an adult might. The savvier kids had gone even beyond the already sophisticated step of associating logos, objects and locations with a particular brand and were beginning to add values. "About 30 percent of the children could offer and support a judgment about how others would view a user of a product," McAlister told me. A child might say that another child who had a birthday party at McDonald's might have lots of friends (here, the questioned child could point to a box on a grid filled with lots of happy faces) because "McDonald's has a playground and you can play there and everyone likes you."