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."
"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.