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Study: Kids Drawn to McDonald’s Wrappers

A study out of Stanford School of Medicine and Packard Children's Hospital this week will likely add fuel to the debate over whether advertisers and media companies should be required to cut back on their marketing of fast foods and snack foods to kids.

The study found that even kids under eight are also attuned to brand preference -- in this case, McDonald's. Children offered McNuggets, fries, milk and carrots from a branded package and one from an unmarked paper bag said the former tasted better.

According to Stanford, how much better it tasted correlated with how many TV sets they had in the house and with how regular a McDonald's customer they were.

Interestingly, the only food that they didn't say tasted better out of a McDonald's bag was its stock in trade, the hamburger.

“It’s really an unfair marketplace out there for young children,” said study lead author Thomas Robinson, head of the Center for Healthy Weight at Packard and a member of the Stanford Prevention Research Center, in announcing the findings. “It’s very clear that they cannot understand the persuasive nature of advertising.”

“We found that kids with more TVs in their homes and those who eat at McDonald’s more frequently were even more likely to prefer the food in the McDonald’s wrapper,” he said on the Stanford Web site.

But Thomas pointed out that it was not simply a case of TV advertising or McDonald's, and that a brother’s or sister's McDonald's-branded toy or their parents' beeline for McDonalds or another fast-food restaurant were part of the equation.

McDonald's and other food marketers have taken steps to cut fat and boost nutritious offerings, and a government-industry task force is preparing next month to report to Congress on ways that both the public and private sector can address the childhood-obesity epidemic.

The Federal Trade Commission has warned advertisers to trim the marketing fat, and Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin, himself a member of the task force, has said that the FCC is ready to regulate if the recommendations aren't sufficiently strong to satisfy Congress, most notably kids’ TV activist and House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

The study was of 63 children aged 3-5 enrolled in a California Head Start program.

Justin Wilson, with the Center for Consumer Freedom, which represents restaurants and food companies, said researchers tend to lose sight of the fact that the food industry has already made significant changes, and it is no longer going to target kids under 12.

He pointed out that fast-food restaurants offer apple slices and carrot sticks, although the carrots in this study were bought at a grocery store.

"Do we really want a world where our food is wrapped in brown paper bags?" he said, adding, "What is really happening is that a group of activists are trying to generate the notion that parents no longer have the responsibility [over their kids’ diets], and that is absolutely wrong."

Representatives of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the American Advertising Federation were not immediately available for comment.