Relationship Between Unhealthy Food Logos And Childhood Obesity

Alan McStravick for – Your Universe Online

In a feature in this past April’s Ad Age magazine, a write up was done on the re-branding of McDonald’s mascot Ronald McDonald that detailed, among other things, the new wardrobe for the hamburger-hocking clown.

As Lorene Yue noted, “These days, the spokesclown for McDonald’s Corp. has been relegated mostly to the nonprofit Ronald McDonald House Charities, in part to make him a smaller target for activists who accuse the company of using him to market fast food to kids.” Continuing she explained, “But starting in June, he’ll take a bigger role in McDonald’s social media channels to promote its new “Fun makes great things happen” campaign.”

This re-emergence of the child-friendly clown seems particularly ill-timed to the release of a new study on childhood obesity and its tie to unhealthy food branding and marketing. This study, conducted by a research team out of Michigan State University (MSU) and the University of Oregon (UO) and led by Anna McAlister, assistant professor of advertising and public relations found that the more familiar a child was with logos and other images associated with fast food restaurants, sodas and other unhealthy snack option brands, the more likely the child was to be overweight or obese.

“We found the relationship between brand knowledge and BMI to be quite robust,” McAlister commented. “The kids who know the most about these brands have higher BMIs.” BMI, or Body Mass Index, is a number calculated from a child’s weight and height. This method is typically very reliable in determining body fatness in most children and teens. While not a direct measure of body fat, research has shown BMI correlates to other measures, such as underwater weighing and dual energy x-ray absorptiometry. Doctors and researchers rely on BMI as it is an inexpensive and easy-to-perform method for screening weight categories that lead to later health problems.

Previous studies have explicitly shown that children who struggle with being overweight at a young age tend to maintain unhealthy weight levels as they age and mature.

The researchers brought together a participant group of children between the ages of 3 and 5 years of age whom they asked to identify certain logos, brands and images like golden arches, silly rabbits and the crown of a king. Those children that were able to enthusiastically identify each picture tended to have a higher BMI than those who presented less recognition of the images.

“The results varied, which is a good thing,” McAlister noted. “Some kids knew very little about the brands while others knew them exceptionally well.”

To support their initial results, the team conducted the study twice with separate groups of children. In the first attempt they discovered that exercise habits among the group tended to offset the negative effects of too much familiarity with unhealthy food. Unfortunately, that same finding could not be duplicated in the second group.

“The inconsistency across studies tells us that physical activity should not be seen as a cure-all in fixing childhood obesity,” McAlister claimed. “Of course we want kids to be active, but the results from these studies suggest that physical activity is not the only answer. The consistent relationship between brand knowledge and BMI suggests that limiting advertising exposure might be a step in the right direction too.”

It’s this last point that should have parents on guard with respect to the McDonald’s Corporation pulling the pusher of Happy Meals out of mothballs and gussying him up in new duds. No marketing decision by McDonald’s, and to a lesser extent their competitors, is ever made lightly. In the same Ad Age article, David Zlotnik, McDonald’s director of global marketing perhaps showed his cards when he admitted, “We’ve been working on his new clothes for probably close to two years.”

McAlister almost seems careful not to assign full blame to the correlation between brand recognition and BMI squarely at the purveyors of the marketing and advertising. Recognizing that children get most of their food messages from television, one could argue those kids with higher BMI suffer the condition due to a sedentary lifestyle that usually means they spend too much time in front of the TV. It’s akin to a chicken v. egg paradox. Are they familiar with the images, brands and logos because they have higher BMI thanks to a sedentary lifestyle or do they have a higher BMI because they are bombarded by the messages they see on TV?

However, McAlister did explain what they believe their study ultimately told them. “From our results,” she said, “it would suggest that it’s not the TV time itself, but rather what is learned about these brands. It’s probably the developing food knowledge, not the sedentary lifestyle.”

Serving as co-author on the paper, UO professor Bettina Cornwell believes the study results provide important insight into children’s relationship with food, or their “first language of food.” As she notes, it doesn’t take long for a child to figure out their likes and dislikes and that early lesson can stick with them their entire lives.

“What we’re trying to show here is just how young kids are when they develop their theory of food,” McAlister added. “As early as three years of age, kids are developing a sense of what food means to them.”

The study and its findings have been published in the most recent issue of the journal Appetite.


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