CHILDREN as young as two can recognise two-thirds of popular brand logos, a new study has found.
Psychologists have discovered that toddlers can recognise the emblems of famous brands including McDonald's, Shell, Nike, Mercedes and even Heineken.
The researchers say their findings show youngsters are influenced by advertising at a much earlier age than previously believed. They claim the success of shows such as Teletubbies have led companies to deliberately target infants.
The report has provoked concern that very young children could be unwittingly influenced by unscrupulous marketing firms.
The Dutch study, published in the Journal of Applied Development Psychology, involved 234 children aged between two and eight. The children were shown the logos of 12 brands, some of which were aimed specifically at children, such as M&Ms sweets, Duplo toys and Wall's ice cream, and others aimed at an adult market
such as Shell, McDonald's, Snuggle fabric conditioner, Nike, Mercedes, Heineken and Camel cigarettes.
The academics behind the report found that, by the age of two, children knew the symbols of between eight and 12 brands on average - even if they were not sure what products those firms sold.
The report said: "Our study clearly shows that exposure to television has consequences for the brand recognition of even the youngest children."
The academics said over the past decade advertisers had extended their target market from a youngest age limit of six and were now promoting to toddlers. The report continued: "This trend has accelerated even more since the worldwide success of the tremendously popular toddler program, Teletubbies. Advertisers have become even more aware of the accessibility and susceptibility of the youngest target groups."
There are currently a number of guidelines in the UK to try and protect children from potentially harmful advertising. The Advertising Standard Agency's broadcast code insists that: "Advertising must not take advantage of children's inexperience or their natural credulity and sense of loyalty."
A spokesman for the ASA said: "The codes already in place to protect children are pretty stringent, but we cannot stop people seeing adverts on TV, so it comes down to parental and guardian control."
However, Kevin Durkin, professor of psychology at Strathclyde University, said young children were potentially very vulnerable to the long-term impact of regular promotion of particular brands.
"People like what they are familiar with, so if a child is regularly exposed to a particular brand, they may well end up feeling positive towards that brand, which for an advertising strategy would be quite effective in laying down [brand loyalty] at an early age. It is certainly the case that younger audiences are more vulnerable than older ones and that could be a cause for concern if it was exploited."
Later this year a public consultation will take place on new rules regarding advertising junk food to children, following a government white paper on healthy eating published last year.
A Scottish Executive spokeswoman said: "As part of Hungry for Success [the Executive's healthy eating programme], we expect schools to end the promotion or advertising of unhealthy drinks and snacks within the dining room."