What Kids Know: McDonald's, Toyota, Disney

It turns out they didn't need Ronald to clue them in to the allure of Mickey D's. When children were asked to assess how popular certain brands were among their friends, they gave answers like "McDonald's has a playground so you can play there and everyone likes you." (To the clown's credit, McAlister said she's since showed children pictures of Ronald McDonald's red boots and striped socks -- omitting the rest of his body -- and found that some could identify the mascot by just his legs and feet alone.)

Of course, recognizing a brand and liking it are two different things: Not even McDonald's received universal approval among kids. McAlister said one child declared that you will have no friends if you go to McDonald's "because all they have is hamburgers and you'll get fat and nobody likes you."

Some children in the study were able to demonstrate not just why they personally liked or disliked a brand but also what the brand might mean to others.

"Kids this young are using brands as indicators of popularity or success," McAlister said.

McAlister and Cornwell are performing similar studies in the U.S. today, including one that tracks how children's attitudes towards brands change over time. The researchers hope their work will ultimately inform both parents and policymakers considering the issue of advertising to children, including ways to improve the marketing of healthy food options to kids.

Their research involving young children shows that "the power of communication is not lost on them," Cornwell said. "It can be used to forward public policy aims."

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