Age preschoolers

Study shows that preschoolers can recognize brand names. Read a roundtable with its founders here, or see new age preschoolers in the Human Interest section.

And that’s a sign of intelligence. A new study released this month examined how well a group of 3- to 5-year-olds were able to recognize “child-oriented” brands. The answer—very able, thank you—is a parent’s worst nightmare: Disney has almost certainly already colonized your 3-year-old’s brain. That’s the usual set-up for yet another article ringing the death knell for childhood innocence. And this is the part where you rush out and yank your kids away from the pernicious influence of the big, bad marketing machine. Everyone knows that advertising is bad for kids, right?

It makes them putty in the hands of the purveyors of corn syrup and artificial coloring, and inspires them to want things that will only make them more stupid. Which, it turns out, is exactly what identifying brands helps them do. Adults use branding as a shorthand to narrow choices and locate particular items or qualities they’re seeking. In order to keep from being overwhelmed by choice and information on a daily basis, kids need to learn to do the same. We found that kids are more likely to use the words we give them to classify things than the physical appearance of the thing itself. Kids who get branding at a young age tend to be what we think of as bright kids.

The point is,” she said, “they’re using the brand to assign a quality. And they can do this for products, too. They tell us the things Coca-Cola makes are great because ‘they’re fizzy and people like them. It doesn’t matter if we agree with the child’s judgment.

What matters is that they’re using the brand to make it. No one expected to see this kind of behavior until they were about 8, and it’s starting much earlier. Even the sharpest child’s brand understanding does tend to be rudimentary, which makes them easier to manipulate. But this doesn’t only mean they will whine for Big Macs. If the idea that marketers have that huge of an influence over what our children eat makes your skin crawl, that’s because you’re taking this too personally. As Gopnik said, “If you’re already worried about this, you probably don’t need to be, and if you’ve never worried about it at all, maybe you should.

In a perfect world, some of the funds allocated toward preventing childhood obesity might go to teaching newly aware consumers to pay attention to the man behind the curtain—a little Jiminy Cricket-like Mr. Who’s telling the story in that commercial? What does he want your mom to do? Shill could help us, as a society, to have our cake and eat it too. After all, we secretly love our ads—we laud them at the Oscars, we handicap them for the Super Bowl, and we’re nostalgic for the commercials of our past. We love brands, and the many and varied things those brands and their advertising support, from PBS Kids to American Idol. We would not be better off without them.

Choose one more thing and then be done. What are you going to be for Halloween? Daniel Doesn’t Want to Wear his Mittens! Daniel learns that when it’s cold outside, he needs to wear his hat and mittens. I Can’t Believe I Said That!