How Many Brands Do Young Children Recognize?

Jason DeRusha


(WCCO) If you see a 2- or 3-year-old child and just think of that toddler as a cute little kid, you're probably not in marketing.

Children under 3 represent a "$20 billion market," according to Susan Gregory Thomas, an investigative journalist and author of the book, "Buy, Buy Baby." Researchers estimate that children see 40,000 ads a year.

"Advertising to children is everywhere," according to Dr. Bill Doherty, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Campus. "You cannot shut off your children's exposure to advertising unless they wear blinders 24 hours a day."

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood reports that marketers are spending at least $15 billion a year to reach children under 12. CCFC wants the Federal Trade Commission to regulate children's advertising and so does Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.

"Right now, the Federal Trade Commission has more authority to regulate advertising to a parent than it does a child," said Harkin. "That doesn't make any sense."

The marketing industry has countered with voluntary efforts to stem off regulation, like the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

To find out just how brand-savvy young children are, WCCO-TV visited 3, 4 and 5-year-olds at St. Paul's Children's Center. We showed 12 flash cards to the kids, with different corporate logos on each one.

The 3-year-olds saw the Target bulls-eye, and started screaming, "Target! Target!" The kids said they recognized the trademark red circle.

At Target, and almost all retail stores, branded temptations are everywhere. Shrek is on toddler clothes. There's a potty seat not-so-ironically branded with the Nickelodeon TV show, "Go, Diego, Go!" Nearly every food aisle has some children's character on a product.

Toddlers "don't know what's good for them or not good for them. The idea is to get them to nag their parents to buy," said Doherty.

An even wilder celebration ensued when we showed the kids the picture of the McDonald's golden arches. The 3-year-olds kicked, laughed, and screamed about McDonald's. They recognized the "M."

It wasn't a surprise to the director of St. Paul's Children Center, Kelly Sadlovsky.

"I have heard kids in the hallways, 3, 4-years-old, say, 'Are we going to McDonald's, are we going to McDonald's.' Parents at first say, 'No, no we're going to make dinner,'" she said. "By the time the child walks out the door it's gone from 'No! No! No!' to 'Maybe, maybe,' to 'Fine, we'll stop at McDonald's on the way home.'"

Every child at every age-level recognized the picture of SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer. These two popular children's TV characters are more than just parts of half-hour television shows. They are brands.

When we asked 4-year-olds if they saw SpongeBob macaroni and cheese versus regular macaroni and cheese, the overwhelming majority chose SpongeBob.

Of course, at Target, SpongeBob macaroni and cheese costs 17 cents an ounce, where the regular version costs just 10 cents an ounce.

The 3-year-olds didn't know Burger King, but they knew it was fast food.

They didn't know Nike's swoosh, but they knew it was shoes. A 4-year-old saw the swoosh and said, "They help you do sports really good. Like soccer."

"The youngest preschoolers I didn't expect them to know as much as they did," said Sadlovsky. "I was surprised at what they did know and how much they recognized. It was amazing, I think, that they start recognizing that stuff so young."

"I think it is a bad thing," said Doherty. "Young children do not have the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. A cartoon character that is fun versus a cartoon character that is selling to them."

As the children got older, they recognized more brands. The 5-year-old group recognized every logo we showed them, even though they couldn't read the names on the logos.

They knew the Starbucks coffee logo, KFC and Pizza Hut. They knew Pepsi from "the red and white and blue of the ball," referring to the Pepsi logo.

Some believe all that advertising is contributing to childhood obesity. The Federal Trade Commission is looking into regulating ads.

"There are many countries in the world that ban advertising to children under age 12," said Doherty.

He urges parents to take charge. Sure, cut down on the time your kids watch TV but more importantly: Don't let your kids dictate your choices in the stores. We know what they're going to choose.