Advertising, branding works on kids as young as 3

“Mommy can I get this?” and “Daddy! I want a Happy Meal” may echo frequently through the shopping aisles or from your back seat. Why do they want this stuff?

Most recognizable brands

Advertising and branding influence kids at a young age. Three- to 5-year-olds understand brands, and preschoolers can judge products based on popularity or relevance to their lives, according to a recent study co-authored by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and University of Michigan.

“We can’t just hold the belief that they don’t get it,” says Bettina Cornwell, a study co-author and professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. “It depends on their level of development.”

Little ones can be perceptive consumers. Children’s recognition rates were as high as 92 percent for some of the 50 brands tested across 16 product categories, including fast food, pop and toys.

The study showed children use brand cues in choosing toys and food. They feel marketing pressures similar to teenagers.

Even for some 3-year-olds, it’s important to have certain toys or eat at certain restaurants. Unfortunately, fast food chains cater to this group.

“(We want to) provide information that can support the right kind of policy,” says Cornwell. “If we understand that these children are vulnerable, it puts them on the radar.”

The information highlights the need to monitor advertising and may help regulators protect children from marketing pressures.

But Cornwell thinks the family has a lot of influence too. She recommends parents sit down and discuss with children why they want these brands.

“Parents set the rules and for this age there’s a lot of potential for involvement in learning about brands,” says Cornwell. “A parent explaining things is always helpful.”

Parenting in a media-heavy world isn’t easy. Cell phones, TV and computers allow advertisers to tell kids what to wear, eat or buy.

Kids who look involved playing with LEGOs could actually be listening to nearby TV commercials. Cornwell suggests monitoring a child’s media intake and having them watch more DVDs than commercial TV.

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