June 21, 2010 -- Once simply the world's best-known cartoon, canine detective Scooby-Doo is now also a popular pitchman for pasta, cookies, "fruit" snacks, and other foods marketed to young children.
SpongeBob SquarePants, Shrek, Dora the Explorer, and many other cartoon characters also do double duty selling junk food and sometimes healthy foods to kids, and new research shows why manufacturers use them.
The study found that foods packaged with popular cartoon characters really do taste better -- or at least they do to 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds.
The effect was not as great with carrots as with less healthy fruit-flavored gummies and graham crackers, but more children said they preferred the taste of all three snacks when the foods bore the image of a familiar cartoon face.
Cartoon Branding Is Big Business
Food and beverage companies in the U.S. spend close to a billion dollars each year on marketing aimed at children under age 12, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
An FTC investigation found that in 2006 alone, food product cross promotions involved about 80 movies, TV shows, or animated characters that appeal primarily to young children.
Although the selling power of these cross promotions is well known within the food industry, the impact of such marketing on children's food preferences and food choices has not been widely investigated elsewhere.
The newly published study was paid for by the nonprofit group the Rudd Foundation, which funds the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
"Obviously the food industry has studied the impact of character branding, but those studies are proprietary," Yale doctoral candidate and study researcher Christina A. Roberto, tells WebMD.
The Yale study included 40 children aged 4 to 6 attending day care centers in New Haven, Conn., and their parents. It appears in the July issue of Pediatrics.
Kids Preferred 'Scooby' Snacks
Parents completed questionnaires designed to establish how much time their children spent watching TV or movies.
In the experiment phase of the study, each child was presented two separate packages containing the same snack. The packages were identical except for one thing: one had a sticker bearing the likeness of one of three cartoon characters -- Scooby Doo, Dora the Explorer, or Shrek.
The children were asked to taste each identical sample and tell the investigator if the two samples tasted the same or, if not, which one tasted better. They were also asked if the loved the food, liked it, disliked it, or hated it.
The experiment was conducted three times with each child: once with graham cracker sticks, once with gummy fruit-flavored snacks, and once with organic baby carrots.
As expected, more children said they preferred the taste of the graham crackers and gummies when the packages bore the likeness of one of the cartoon characters. More kids also said they preferred the taste of the cartoon-branded carrots, but the effect was weaker and failed to reach statistical significance.
SpongeBob Soybeans OK, Advocate Says
The Yale researchers say the findings confirm that branding food products with characters children recognize influences taste preferences, especially for high-calorie foods with little nutritional value.
They conclude that the use of licensed characters on such foods should be restricted, arguing that this would be more likely to improve the diets of children than using the familiar likenesses to sell healthy foods.
TV network Nickelodeon has licensed many of its most popular characters, including SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer, to several fruit and vegetable companies. In recent years their images have appeared on packages of fresh and frozen spinach, carrots, clementine oranges, and edamame (soybeans).
Margo Wootan, DSc, of the nutrition research and advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, says she sees no problem with putting the familiar cartoon images on these foods and other healthy foods kids should be eating.
The problem, she says, is that advertising budgets for such foods are small compared to highly processed foods like gummy fruit snacks, which she calls candy marketed as fruit.
"If the fruit and vegetable industry had more money to market their foods to kids, I would be very happy," she says. "Junk foods are marketed in such sophisticated and persuasive ways, it is no surprise that these are the foods kids want to eat."
The food industry trade group Manufacturers Association did not respond to a request for comment on the study from WebMD in time for publishing.