McDonald's and Mere Exposure

Little kids love McDonald's:

Hamburgers, french fries, chicken nuggets, and even milk and carrots all taste better to children if they think they came from McDonald's, a small study suggests.

In taste tests with 63 children ages 3 to 5, there was only a slight preference for the McDonald's-branded hamburger over one wrapped in plain paper, not enough to be statistically significant. But for all the other foods, the McDonald's brand made all the difference.

Almost 77 percent, for example, thought that McDonald's french fries served in a McDonald's bag tasted better, compared with 13 percent who liked the fries in a plain white bag. Apparently carrots, too, taste better if they are served on paper with the McDonald's name on it. More than 54 percent preferred them, compared with 23 percent each for those who liked the unbranded carrots and those who thought they tasted the same.

When I first read about this study, I was a bit surprised by the magnitude of the preference shift. After all, most three year olds have trouble deciphering the meaning of advertisements, especially when they aren't targeted at kids. But then I remembered the mere exposure effect, which was first discovered by Robert Zajonc, a psychologist at Stanford. In a seminal 1980 paper, "Feeling and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences," Zajonc used a series of clever experiments to demonstrate that our brain always prefers the familiar. For example, if people are repeatedly exposed to a random Chinese ideogram, they begin to prefer that ideogram to other Chinese characters, even though they can't explain why. This irrational preference persists even if people are shown the Chinese ideogram subliminally, so that they have no conscious awareness of seeing it. A split second of perception is enough to generate a persuasive emotional reaction, as the preferences of the unconscious can be shaped by the merest of exposures. (Familiarity makes favorites.) Saturating our sensations is a sure way to increase sales.

I think the mere exposure effect also explains the preference shift towards McDonald's in little kids. The scientists found that the more television the children watched, the more they preferred food with a fast food label. So even if the little kids didn't understand the advertisements for the new southwestern chicken salad at McDonald's, or comprehend those billboards for McDonald's ice coffee (which is pretty good, by the way), they were exposed repeatedly to the golden arches, and that exposure made them like the brand.

This unconscious response is a leftover idiosyncrasy from our distant past. Back in the Pleistocene era, when humans were vulnerable hunter-gatherers, it made sense to instinctively prefer the familiar. The strange was dangerous: new foods might be toxic and adventurous eaters got poisoned. Of course, these evolved feelings aren't particularly helpful in the modern marketplace. Instead of keeping us safe, they keep us tethered to brands with big advertising budgets, like McDonald's.

What else can the mere exposure effect explain? For example, I've always wondered if the mere exposure effect can help explain why so many dictators insist on plastering their image all over the place.


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This should come as no surprise. Haute and nouvelle cuisine have known for generations that presentation is a huge part of the gastronomic experience. That this effect is also true for less 'refined palates' simply proves that this is a universal phenomenon.

While in grad school I read a few studies on the exposure effect as applied to music. It was pretty interesting; one study showed that preference lingered even when the subject couldn't recall having heard the song before.

It also indicated that after a certain point, preference became avoidance; a song that had been heard too many times was no longer liked as much. In other words, familiarity really does breed contempt.

If memory serves, the authors drew some conclusions from this regarding the life cycle of a hit single. To me it also suggests some reasons why brand marketers are constantly reimagining brands and coming up with new marketing schemes; the same-old same-old would eventually lead to a drop-off in sales.

By Genevieve Williams (not verified) on 14 Aug 2007 #permalink

Good point, Genevieve, and it's also interesting that a period of rest from the same-old same-old makes the same-old interesting again. For instance, songs that we heard way too much in middle school or high school and got sick of, we love to hear again ten years later. The same goes for the particular aesthetic pleasure of old advertisements. Looking at older versions of coca-cola or pepsi cans makes me feel really good!

I have to nitpick. You say "After all, most three year olds have trouble deciphering the meaning of advertisements, especially when they aren't targeted at kids."

I can safely assume from this statement that you have no children. This is absolutely false. When my son was two we were walking to JP Licks (on Harvard st) and passed a McDonalds, at which point he went completely insane because weren't going there for ice cream (I was a little offended by his preference for mediocre artificial frozen dairy-like substance, I think I carried him screaming the rest of the way.).

I can't prove that this is due to advertising (we'd been to McDonald's a couple times, never for ice cream), but the same could be said for the children in this study. In addition, if I let his big sister turn on, say Nickelodeon, or any channel with advertisements, he'll sit fascinated watching, interrupting only to occasionally say "I want that". Even if "that" happens to be something he wouldn't want at all...

My point is, advertising is powerful, and even more effective on those of us who have language skills and have not yet developed ability to rationally judge what they are told. Anyone who has ever watch a young child mesmerized by an ad on TV knows that...

By Crusty Dem (not verified) on 15 Aug 2007 #permalink

I'm with DV82XL and Crusty on the 3-year-olds: packaging & advertising are enough to explain it.

Plus, I'm not a fan of hunter-gatherer explanations -- too rarely falsifiable.

But re: "What else can the mere exposure effect explain?" I have to reveal myself as a social cynic and assert that it happens with friendships. Why I think so (and this has happened to me several times): imagine you're in a new place, and you eat lunch the first week with a group of people you meet. You find them kind of bland and so-so, and hope to meet other people. But next Monday in the lunchroom, you spot them and perk up just to see their faces: hey, here are my people. It's a rich-get-richer effect; socially, it's probably easier to stay with them than to change. But the rules of politeness and the extent you got to know them already aren't enough to explain why you suddenly are so happy to see them, when rationally, odds are that you would get along better with some other folks in the crowd. They grow on you.

Or making travel plans: your acquaintance mentions they once went to Busch Gardens when in Florida. You're neutral as to whether this serves as a recommendation or not. When you're at the travel agent's, planning your own Florida trip, you're awash in the hundreds of destinations that all sound interesting, when suddenly you see Busch Gardens, and you're like, "hey, I've heard of that, at least! Make sure to tell me more about that one."

In both of these (plus the Chinese ideograms) it's the spark of familiarity amidst a sea of random unknowns that makes things jump out. Seems perfectly, utterly natural.