Parents, Listen Up! (Kids, Never Mind!)
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Marketing Jun 2, 2014

Par­ents, Lis­ten Up! (Kids, Nev­er Mind!)

Mar­keters should tout the health ben­e­fits of their food prod­ucts to par­ents — but shouldn’t let chil­dren get wind of them.

Yevgenia Nayberg​

Based on the research of

Michal Maimaran

Ayelet Fishbach

Even with­out for­mal train­ing, par­ents know the drill: no broc­coli, no dessert. If Lit­tle John­ny lash­es out in open revolt, launch­ing broc­coli across the room, bring out the big guns. Tell him that broc­coli is not only yum­my, but that it will make him healthy and strong.

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But what seems like a sound strat­e­gy to prod a child into eat­ing healthy might do more harm than good. Might empha­siz­ing the ben­e­fits of food to young chil­dren — for exam­ple, telling them that eat­ing veg­eta­bles will make them grow big and strong — actu­al­ly deter them from want­i­ng to eat these foods? If you push young kids to eat healthy or even neu­tral food by pre­sent­ing a mes­sage as to what ben­e­fits the food gives them, they eat less,” says Michal Maimaran, a vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School of Management.

Maimaran’s research shows that kids between the ages of three and five will eat less of a food if it is asso­ci­at­ed with some sort of goal, such as becom­ing health­i­er or a bet­ter read­er. It is much bet­ter, Maimaran argues, not to send any mes­sage or, if applic­a­ble, to empha­size the tasti­ness of the food. For peo­ple tasked with mar­ket­ing prod­ucts to young chil­dren, the impli­ca­tions of Maimaran’s research are straight­for­ward. Kids will make neg­a­tive infer­ences on the spot about a food’s tasti­ness if its good-for-you” ben­e­fits are emphasized.

The First Course

Across five exper­i­ments con­duct­ed at an Evanston-area day­care, Maimaran and her col­league, Ayelet Fish­bach, of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, deter­mined that even three- to five-year-olds judge the tasti­ness of food, and adjust how much of it they eat, based on mes­sages they receive about the food.

Take their sec­ond exper­i­ment, where a group of 49 chil­dren split into two groups were read dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions of the same illus­trat­ed short sto­ry about a girl named Tara. In the first ver­sion, Tara ate Wheat Thins crack­ers for a snack. She felt strong and healthy” and had all the ener­gy she need­ed to play out­side.” The sec­ond ver­sion of the sto­ry had Tara eat­ing Wheat Thins and head­ing out­side to play. The results? The chil­dren who were led to believe that eat­ing Wheat Thins would make them strong ate about half the amount of crack­ers eat­en by the kids who were not giv­en any mes­sage about the ben­e­fits of Wheat Thins.

Why are mes­sages that involve instru­men­tal ben­e­fits like health­i­ness so inef­fec­tive? As Maimaran and Fish­bach write, chil­dren learn through expe­ri­ence that food pre­sent­ed as healthy is less tasty and thus con­sume less of it.” More gen­er­al­ly, chil­dren tend to believe that foods can­not serve dual pur­pos­es. When an instru­men­tal ben­e­fit is tout­ed, chil­dren may see that as the only ben­e­fit of the food — and there­fore think that the food is not tasty — mak­ing them less inclined to eat it.

When mar­ket­ing direct­ly to kids at this age, it’s best not to empha­size any ben­e­fit or goals that the food can give them, but rather focus on the expe­ri­ence of eat­ing it.” — Michal Maimaran

The lat­ter might explain why the asso­ci­a­tion with fla­vor­less­ness is not lim­it­ed to health ben­e­fits. Aca­d­e­m­ic ben­e­fits, like becom­ing a bet­ter read­er or counter, are also sus­pect. Even when we present food as a tool to achieve a new goal that the kids do not spon­ta­neous­ly asso­ciate the food with, we find that kids eat less. For exam­ple, in exper­i­ments three and four we say the girl in the sto­ry thinks the car­rots will help her know [how] to read or count. Kids in our research still made the infer­ence that if food is good for that goal, it can­not be good for anoth­er goal: taste,” Maimaran says. And they end up eat­ing less than kids who learn the girl in the sto­ry sim­ply eats the car­rots, with­out any goal mes­sage, or when the girl thinks the car­rots are yummy.”

Speak No Evil

To stem the tide of chil­dren-led din­ner rebel­lions, empha­siz­ing a food’s taste over its instru­men­tal ben­e­fits is more effec­tive. The same strat­e­gy goes for the mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ty whose adver­tis­ing tar­gets such young chil­dren. When mar­ket­ing direct­ly to kids at this age, it’s best not to empha­size any ben­e­fit or goals that the food can give them, but rather focus on the expe­ri­ence of eat­ing it,” Maimaran says. Plea­sur­able or oth­er­wise pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences are imme­di­ate­ly ben­e­fi­cial to us, after all, while instru­men­tal ben­e­fits are only felt long after a meal is consumed.

But thereis a bet­ter strat­e­gy than focus­ing on taste when it comes to get­ting young kids to eat what adults know to be healthy food. Say­ing the food is yum­my does not hurt, but it doesn’t help either,” she says. My research shows that it is best to say noth­ing about the food — sim­ply serve it with­out say­ing what goal the food might serve.”

Of course, it is pos­si­ble that chil­dren between three and five years old sim­ply do not put much stock in the spe­cif­ic instru­men­tal ben­e­fits test­ed in the stud­ies. In post-tests, Maimaran and Fish­bach direct­ly asked kids in that age range how impor­tant the goals from the sto­ries were (being strong, know­ing how to read and count), as well as how impor­tant oth­er pre­sum­ably desir­able goals were (being hand­some or pret­ty, hav­ing a lot of friends). The val­ue the kids assigned to look­ing attrac­tive or being pop­u­lar was no dif­fer­ent from the val­ue the kids assigned to the instru­men­tal ben­e­fits test­ed, sug­gest­ing that chil­dren do in fact care about these health and aca­d­e­m­ic goals — they just do not respond to them at dinnertime.

Just Eat It

The pol­i­cy impli­ca­tions of this research are impor­tant, Maimaran argues, as busi­ness­es think more about how to get kids to eat health­i­er prod­ucts. You want to avoid attach­ing any instru­men­tal mes­sage to the food,” she says. You do not want to present the food as serv­ing goals.” Even if a mar­ket­ing firm wished to manip­u­late children’s expec­ta­tions to push them toward health­i­er food — say, by telling them eat­ing a cer­tain food would make them big and strong — the effort would like­ly fail. So when it comes to images or lan­guage used in adver­tis­ing, keep it sim­ple and neu­tral. Pic­tures of boys and girls on a play­ground are fine, but be wary of pho­tos that show kids count­ing or reading.

Teenagers, who can process infor­ma­tion in a more com­plex man­ner, are a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. They’re able to under­stand that if some food is good for one thing, it might also be tasty for them,” Maimaran says. But for par­ents of three- to five-year-olds, keep it sim­ple. Do as Maimaran has begun doing with her three young chil­dren. Sim­ply serve the food with­out any mes­sage,” she says.

Featured Faculty

Michal Maimaran

Research Associate Professor and Clinical Associate Professor of Marketing

About the Writer

Andrew Zaleski is a Philadelphia-based journalist and reporter.

About the Research

Maimaran, Michal, and Ayelet Fishbach. Forthcoming. “If It’s Useful and You Know It, Do You Eat? Preschoolers Refrain from Instrumental Food.” Journal of Consumer Research.

Read the original

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