Children as young as three years old are vulnerable to advertising, contrary to past research that suggested such marketing only had an impact on older kids, according to a new U.S. study.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and University of Michigan found that children aged three to five succumbed to the same marketing pressures as young adults, in that they understood the advertiser wanted them to buy something and that buying the product could make them happier.

"Young children are able to identify brands, to know what it stands for, know what this company sells," co-author Bettina Cornwell, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan, said Monday during an interview with CBC Radio's As It Happens. "They have a relatively profound understanding of brands that are marketed to them."

This is contrary to past research that suggested children weren't affected by brand symbolism until they were between the ages of seven to 11, she said.

However, Cornwell explained that the previous understanding was based on past studies that focused on the brands and products that generally had no relevance to children.

"But when you talk about the toys and foods they enjoy and that are marketed toward them, they really do have a strong understanding," Cornwell said.

In the two-part study, published in the journal Psychology & Marketing, researchers first assessed brand recognition levels in 38 children aged three to five. Children were shown 50 well-known brand names on cards and were asked if they were familiar with them.

"Almost all of the children, 93 per cent in our study, were able to recognize McDonald's readily, but they can also recognize Shell Oil or Pepsi, or even Toyota," said Cornwell.

Cornwell explained that brands such as Shell might be associated with adult products, but more likely the children recognized that Shell also had stores that sell nicknacks and junk food.

In the second part of the study, researchers found children were more likely to associate related products to brands that had been specifically marketed toward them.

"What I can say is we now understand more about how the young child develops his understanding, in the sense that their ability to understand the brand is also related to their social development. Now we can say the child understands, if you will, the mind of the advertiser. 'The advertiser wants me to understand this brand as carrying meaning, not just something that I want or that I have.'"

Cornwell said she didn't know if such early understanding of brands could result in a long-term brand loyalty, which is what many marketers are trying for when they reach out to children.

"We don't have longitudinal data, but one could argue that early child associations to an experience and a brand could have a positive influence on what they want to purchase in the future," she said.

Her hope is that the research and understanding it brings will be used by government regulators to protect preschool-aged children from undue marketing pressures.

"[The children] make decisions about what they need and want based on this brand-symbolic communication. It's a brand they need because 'I want to be liked by other children, I want to be popular,' and yes, that could expand the repertoire of purchases they might be interested in," said Cornwell.