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Kids can be fickle, but it turns out they may actually start developing brand loyalty at a very young age.

Earlier this month, a new study found that kids are capable of recognizing brands even before they learn how to read. ABC News reports that a group of preschool children in Australia were shown logos for companies like McDonald’s (Stock Quote: MCD), Toyota (Stock Quote: TM) and Disney (Stock Quote: DIS), and many kids were able to match up the logo with the company’s products.

It may seem surprising that kids develop brand recognition at such a young age, but researchers believe it comes down to two main factors: how present the company is in kids’ daily lives, and perhaps more importantly, whether their product is associated with good experiences.

"My feeling is that a lot of this has to do with positive emotions -- children recognize things that are self-serving and enjoyable," one of the researchers told ABC. That’s why nearly all the children were able to recognize McDonald’s but none recognized the Kleenex logo. (Of course, using this logic, I wonder if children will still recognize Toyota in a few years, given all the drama now associated with it.)

The upside of the study, as Slate points out, is the indication that kids are getting smarter, since they are able to make complex connections at a young age. Yet, this study also confirms something that parents have long been afraid of: kids are very susceptible to ads. According to Slate, children showed a willingness in this study to “make judgments about products and people based on associations with those brands.” In other words, brand marketing has become so successful that it has served to inform kids’ decisions about what they want to buy and with whom they want to be friends.

How exactly did this happen?

Since the early 1980’s, the amount of money advertisers have spent marketing to children has increased from $100 million to $17 billion annually in the U.S. alone. Much of that is undoubtedly spent on harmless (though potentially expensive) products from companies like Disney and Mattel (Stock Quote: MAT). But many companies deliberately market items to children which many consider to be quite controversial.

Here are five of the worst items that have been marketed to kids in recent years:

Padded Bikini Bras

A retailer in Britain recently introduced a line of padded bikini bras geared towards 7-year old girls. The store was quickly shamed into removing the item from shelves after people complained that it “encourages a culture in which children are viewed as sexually available.”


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In an effort to promote the gun lifestyle to children, The National Rifle Association publishes a magazine for “young shooters” called InSights. As one publication pointed out, this magazine features profiles of children as young as 7 years old toting rifles and going hunting.


Over the years, big tobacco companies have found a number of creative ways to market cigarettes to children, including catchy mascots (Joe Camel) and fruit-flavored cigarettes (Bayou Blast and Beach Breezer). Last month, the FDA announced a new set of rules that go into effect at the end of June and will restrict the ability of tobacco companies to market to kids. According to the Christian Science Monitor, “The new FDA rules prohibit a fairly wide gamut of tobacco marketing efforts – from sponsorships to free giveaways to the sale or distribution of free hats or T-shirts.”

Fast Food

There’s a reason that McDonald’s was the most recognized brand in that study: they spend lots of money on toys, cartoons and other promotional tactics in order to attract kids. It’s worked so well that a study in 2007 found kids were actually more likely to like French fries, chicken nuggets and even carrots if those items had a McDonald’s wrapper on them. But as many have pointed out, the ability of fast food companies to manipulate kids is only adding to the health problems of children in America.

Recently though the Better Business Bureau has been working with food companies like McDonalds to determine which of their products are appropriate to market to children.  Unfortunately, most companies continue to fail to meet these standards.


While this is less of an issue for young children, alcohol companies seem to have made a concerted effort to attract younger (and potentially underage) drinkers by releasing cheap, sugary beverages which some have dubbed “alcopops.” As with flavored cigarettes, these sweet beers may be more enticing to first-time drinkers. Read MainStreet’s earlier post about this and several other adult items marketed to children.

If you are worried that your child may be too susceptible to this kind of marketing, you don’t need to throw away your television, but you may want to play a more active role in the way they view ads. “Watch television with them and engage your kids on these messages,” said Syble Solomon, an expert on family finances. “If your kids see some great new product, ask them to be critical about it.”

Solomon also recommends that you teach your child the value of making choices, rather than sacrifices. It may sound like a weighty conversation to have with a five year old, but you know that old saying: if they’re old enough to recognize brands, they’re old enough to discuss proper spending habits.

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