How Bad Is Imprinting?

Childhood Obesity News has been looking back over some events in the history of the relationship between food companies and children — specifically having to do with advertising, packaging, and other forms of persuasion, aka marketing.

Five years ago, a University of Oregon/University of Wisconsin study confirmed a few things that were already apparent — namely, that children like sugar, fat, and salt. The coauthors were marketing professor T. Bettina Cornwell and consumer science researcher Anna R. McAlister. The 108 research subjects, divided evenly by gender, were examined about the correspondence between what they liked to eat and their “emerging awareness of brands.”

The protocol went like this:

Each child was shown 36 randomly sorted cards — 12 related to each of two popular fast-food chains, six to each of the two leading cola companies and six depicting irrelevant products. All children were able to correctly place some of the product cards with the correct companies…

The results led the researchers to believe that brand awareness is “linked to the development of a preference for sugar, fat and salt in food.” A few months later, a study published by the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine indicated that 4- to 6-year-old children’s taste preferences are affected by depictions of beloved fictional figures on the packages.

The results showed, among other things, that “Children who saw a popular media character on the box reported liking the cereal more than those who viewed a character-free box.” The authors said:

The results of this experiment provide evidence that the use of popular characters on food products affects children’s assessment of taste. Messages encouraging healthy eating may resonate with young children, but the presence of licensed characters on packaging potentially overrides children’s assessments of nutritional merit.

At the same time, a University of Liverpool team determined that television advertisements for junk food actually do inspire children to make unhealthful food choices. This time, the 281 subjects ranged from age 6 to 13, and the ones who were shown commercials for high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods tended to choose more of those things when mealtime came around.

Journalist Daniel Bates wrote:

After exposure to the junk food adverts there was a “significant” increase in the number who chose branded and non-branded foods that were bad for them…

The effect was especially true for children who usually watched more than 21 hours of television per week.

Research conducted by the Universities of Missouri and Kansas confirmed that older children are as susceptible as younger ones to “overly effective marketing campaigns” that imprint corporate graphic design creations permanently on their consciousness. The 10- to 14-year-old subjects underwent MRI scanning of their brains while looking at different food and non-food corporate logos.

According to the study:

When showed images of fast food companies, the parts of the brain that control pleasure and appetite lit up. The brains did not do the same when showed images from companies not associated with food…

Researchers also found that children were more likely to choose the food branded with the logo with which they were familiar.

These academics reported that fast-food logos are “branded into the minds of children,” an interesting reminder that a brand is not just a distinctive iteration of a familiar product such as cereal or candy, but an identifying mark seared into the skin of livestock, convicts, and slaves.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Preschool kids know what they like: Salt, sugar and fat,”, 01/24/11
Source: “Junk food advertising to kids is influential study shows,”, 03/14/11
Source: “Junk food adverts really do make children hungry for unhealthy meals,”, 06/29/11
Source: “”I’m Lovin’ It”: Fast-Food Logos ‘Imprinted’ in Children’s Brains, Study Says,” Medical, 09/25/12
Photo credit: Anne Worner via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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