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Cartoon Characters Influence Kids' Food Choices

Study Shows Visual Clues May Help Children Remember What They See in Ads
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 7, 2011 -- Shrek and other cartoon characters influence the opinions of children about their eating preferences, a study shows.

The study is published in the March issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Because kids remember non-verbal representations more easily than they do verbal ones, a visual cue such as a logo or character like Shrek may help them remember what they see in advertisements.

“The use of trade spokes-characters is a popular marketing practice in child-directed products because the presence of these figures helps children identify and remember the associated product,” the researchers write.

Taste Test for Kids

University of Pennsylvania researchers led by Matthew A. Lapierre, MA, evaluated 80 kids between the ages of 4 and 6 to determine if advertisers using a licensed cartoon character on food packaging affected children’s taste assessments of the cereals.

The kids were shown boxes of cereal labeled either “Healthy Bits” or “Sugar Bits” with some boxes featuring media characters and others not.

Participants were given 0.35 ounces of the dry cereal to taste and asked to rate the taste of the cereal on a scale of one to five.

Almost all the kids reported liking the cereal, but those who saw a popular media character on the box said they liked it more than the kids who viewed a box with no character on it.

What is more, the children who sampled the cereal named “Healthy Bits” reported enjoying the cereal more than kids who were given the same stuff under the name “Sugar Bits.”

Children receiving the cereal named Sugar Bits with no characters on it reported being significantly less satisfied with the taste than those in the other groups.

No major differences were found among kids in the two “Healthy Bits” group, based on the presence or absence of media characters on the box.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Food Choices

The results “provide evidence that the use of popular characters on food products affects children’s assessment of taste,” the researchers say. “Messages encouraging healthy eating may resonate with young children, but the presence of licensed characters on packaging potentially overrides children’s assessments of nutritional merit.”

Other research has shown that appealing characters influence snack selections of children and that associating licensed characters with health foods can encourage youngsters to make healthier food choices, especially if the characters are beloved.

Researchers say it doesn’t take long for children to form positive opinions after seeing popular media characters, and that even the name of a cereal can shape a child’s opinion.

“We believe there are two potential explanations for this finding,” the researchers write. “The first is that from a young age, children are commonly told that sugary foods are bad and should be avoided. As such it is possible that children were reacting less enthusiastically to the name Sugar Bits because of these negatives associations. Furthermore, we noted in our survey of cereals currently marketed to children that although many cereals use names that imply a sweet taste, none included the word sugar in the title.”

The researchers say it is promising that messages encouraging healthier eating habits are getting through to kids, but “disconcerting that just the presence of a media character can override this judgment.”

The researchers say their findings represent “an important step in our understanding of the effects of marketing practices on young children” and suggest important areas for future research.

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