What Kids Know: McDonald's, Toyota, Disney

PHOTO University of Michigan professor T. Bettina Cornwell observes as a young boy creates collages to represent soft drink brands Coke and Pepsi

Alexandra Noailles' son doesn't want just toys. Julien covets merchandise from the animated film "Cars" and Nintendo's Wii video game system. When it comes to yogurt, he opts for Dannon's Danimals. And when he wants fast food, more often than not it's McDonald's that he asks for.

Barely five years-old, Julien has developed some pretty specific brand preferences.

"I figure he just picks it up in commercials," Noailles, of Peekskill, N.Y., said.

VIDEO: Upgrading your favorite fast-food meals to cut calories.

For years, understanding brands and logos was thought to be the province of older children, but a recent study has found that the preschool set also has the ability to identify and distinguish among different corporate products.

"Young children are ready learners and are learning about their brand environment just about everywhere," said T. Bettina Cornwell, a professor of marketing and sports management at the University of Michigan. Cornwell and Anna R. McAlister, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, published their study "Children's Brand Symbolism Understanding" in the journal Psychology and Marketing last month.

The study, which involved 38 Australian preschool children ages 3 to nearly 5 years old, found that while the children were not yet able to read, they often knew exactly which logo corresponded with which brand. Certain logos -- including those for fast food chains (McDonald's), entertainment companies (Disney, the parent company of ABC News, and Warner Brothers) and cars (Toyota) -- proved especially recognizeable. Others, including those for clothing (Nike) and personal care (Kleenex), fared considerably worse. (No children in the study recognized the Kleenex logo. Kleenex spokesman Joey Mooring said he was unfamliar with the study but added that Kleenex's "primary consumer demographic" is "moms.")

The researchers were especially surprised to find children identifying brands whose marketing doesn't appear to target kids, including Toyota, which was recognized by 80 percent of the study's participants, and Shell, which was recognized by nearly 53 percent.

McAlister had a couple of theories to explain why brands like Shell and Toyota get kids' attention. For the former, children might associate trips to the gas station with stops for treats at a gas station convenience store, she said. For the latter, children may recognize car brands because they've learned to distinguish between their parents' cars and those of others.

Before ABCs, Toddlers Learn Toyota, McDonald's, Disney

"My feeling is that a lot of this has to do with positive emotions -- children recognize things that are self-serving and enjoyable," McAlister said.

McDonald's was the most recognized brand, with nearly 93 percent of children correctly identifying the restaurant chain by its golden arches.

But here's a detail that may come as a surprise to parents and proponents of the recent "Retire Ronald McDonald" campaign: During the study, children were never shown pictures of Ronald McDonald, the McDonald's clown mascot who critics say encourages unhealthy eating habits among kids.

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