Are Cartoon Characters Coaxing Kids to Eat Junk Food?

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Is your kid on the Dora the Explorer diet? Children say food tastes better when a familiar cartoon character — like Dora or Scooby Doo — appears on its packaging, a new study finds. And most kids prefer snacks that have the character on it, over generic packages containing the exact same food.

The findings should come as welcome news to food and beverage companies, which spend more than $1.6 billion each year wooing young consumers — 13% of that total goes to character licensing and other forms of cross-promotion — according to background material in the paper appearing in the July issue of Pediatrics.

Scientific organizations and consumer advocacy groups have long argued against kid-targeted advertising, noting that as the food industry’s child marketing budget has surged over the past several decades, so have obesity rates in preschool and primary-school-aged children. But to date, there has been surprisingly little research on whether the use of licensed characters on product packaging actually affects children’s eating habits.

For their study, researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity recruited 40 children ages 4 to 6. Each child was given three pairs of identical foods to eat: graham crackers, gummy bears and baby carrots. Each food item was presented in identical clear packaging, with the name of the food printed at the top. But one package in each pair was also affixed with a sticker of a popular cartoon character — Scooby Doo, Dora the Explorer or Shrek.

The participants were asked whether the snack pairs tasted the same, or if one tasted better. Overall, 50% to 55% of kids said the food with the cartoon characters were better tasting. (Interestingly, the finding was significant when it came to the graham crackers and gummy bears, but not the carrots.)

Then the children were asked which of the two items they would choose for a snack: Even more participants (73% to 88%) said they preferred the package with the cartoon — which suggests that kids like character-branded food, whether it tastes better to them or not.

According to the Pediatrics paper, the findings are in line with some previous research on the power of cartoon characters over children’s food choices:

Proprietary studies conducted by the Sesame Workshop found that the presence of an Elmo sticker on food packaging affected children’s food selection behavior. In the no-sticker condition, 78% of participants chose a chocolate bar over broccoli. When Elmo was added to the broccoli package, however, one-half of the children chose the vegetable over the candy, although the authors did not measure taste perception that study.

But despite some industry efforts to put licensed characters on healthy foods, the vast majority of cartoon characters still appear on junk food products. The study notes that, for example, “Nickelodeon announced in 2005 that it would license characters to produce companies to encourage healthier diets for children. Soon thereafter, SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer, characters that generate annual sales of branded goods of $2 billion, began appearing on packaging for spinach carrots and fruits.” But:

In 2007, two years after SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer began to appear on fruits and vegetables, 60% of grocery store products featuring Nickelodeon characters were still food of poor nutritional value. In the same year, Shrek became a spokesperson for various U.S. Department of Health and Human Services campaigns; simultaneously, however, his image appeared on products from Kellogg’s, McDonald’s, M&Ms, Cheetos and Keebler.

The mixed messages may be confusing to kids and warrant further study, the authors suggest. For now, however, the authors argue that the use of cartoon characters on junk food packaging should be restricted: “Overall, our results provide evidence that licensed characters can influence children’s eating habits negatively by increasing positive taste perceptions and preferences for junk foods. … More than advocating the use of licensed characters for healthy foods, our findings point to the need to regulate and curtail the use of this marketing approach for high-energy, low-nutrient products.”