Why Cartoon Characters Make Kids’ Food Taste Better

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A new study finds that when kids see familiar and favorite characters from cartoons or movies on food packaging, they tend to like that food more.

That may not seem like such a revelation, but consider that in this particular experiment, the researchers fed the children the exact same food, and just changed the exterior appearance of the packaging. Such alterations were enough to actually change the way the youngsters tasted the food.

Led by Matthew Lapierre, who is working on his dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, the scientists devised four different boxes of cereal for 80 children to test. After analyzing existing children’s cereals and the licensed characters appearing on their packaging, Lapierre’s group decided to decorate two of the boxes with images of penguins from the movie Happy Feet. The penguins were familiar enough to children without being part of established marketing campaigns to bias the participants’ perceptions of the cereal. The two remaining boxes contained no characters, just an image of the cereal.

(More on Time.com: Are Cartoon Characters Coaxing Kids to Eat Junk Food?)

The other variable the group tested was the name of the cereal — one of the penguin-containing packages was called Healthy Bits, while the other was named Sugar Bits, and the same was done for the boxes without the characters. The cereal inside all boxes was the same, an organic product that not many children would recognize.

As expected, the children, aged 4 to 6, consistently rated the penguin-adorned boxes of cereal as better tasting than the ones without the characters. But what surprised the researchers was that the effect went beyond a mere preference for a familiar logo or character.

Previous research involving familiar cartoon characters and snacks such as gummy bears, graham crackers and carrots found that kids prefer packaged food branded with familiar characters, whether or not the food tastes better to them. Other studies involving McDonald’s products asked children to choose between food wrapped in McDonald’s logos or food lacking a recognizable brand, and children repeatedly opted for the McDonald’s foods. But in the current analysis, researchers looked beyond cartoon preferences, and found that the same cereal actually tasted better to children when a penguin appeared on the box. “What struck us was that when you just slapped a character on the box, it changed the way kids tasted the cereal,” says Lapierre. “We were expecting an effect, but we just didn’t think it would be that profound an effect.”

(More on Time.com: Toddlers’ Junk-Food Diet May Lead to Lower IQ)

It adds to the evidence that marketing campaigns tying beloved and familiar characters to food products actually do work, and if parents would let them, influence how children eat. Children tend to react more emotionally and intuitively to events and objects than adults do, explains Lapierre, and experts believe that may be why they are particularly susceptible to advertising that relies on characters. “When children see a character they like on a product, what comes to mind is how much they like that character, and it carries over into their product assessment,” he says. “Their ability to stop and think gets overwhelmed. Children have a difficult time overriding and using cognition to override that [emotional] response.”

In fact, researchers at the Sesame Workshop found that when children were asked to choose between chocolate and broccoli, 78% opted for the chocolate bar and 22% favored the healthy vegetable. But when an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli, and an unfamiliar character was placed on the chocolate, the broccoli fans swelled to 50%.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the presence of favored cartoon characters leaves children completely blind to taste or other factors. In the second portion of the study, the scientists tested children’s responses to the two different names for the cereal, and to their utter surprise, found that children preferred Healthy Bits to Sugar Bits.

(More on Time.com: Study: Kids Eat Less Sugar If They’re Allowed to Sweeten their Own Cereal)

Why? Lapierre and his team are still scratching their head over that one, but theorize that one of two factors may be at work: First, the youngsters may be anticipating the way healthy and sugary cereals should taste, and since the cereal in the boxes was only lightly sweetened, their expectation for a more overwhelming sugar sensation when they ate Sugar Bits likely left them disappointed with that version. On the other hand, they might have been expecting a drier, unsweetened cereal with Healthy Bits and were therefore pleasantly surprised by the slightly sweet taste and ranked the Healthy version higher than the Sugar.

Alternatively, says Lapierre, the children may have already been educated enough about nutrition from their parents to know that sugar isn’t good for them, and thus said they preferred the Healthy Bits, knowing that’s what their parents might expect them to say.

Lapierre notes that the power of characters in influencing how children actually think food tastes could be an effective tool in guiding children toward healthier and more nutritious choices. If Elmo can make broccoli seem appealing, then imagine what a phalanx of familiar characters could do in the fruit and vegetable section of the grocery store.

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