The researchers presented a group of 40 four- to six-year-old children with three different snacks – graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks and carrots – each in two different packages. Half the packages were branded with popular cartoon characters Dora the Explorer, Shrek, and Scooby Doo while the other half were unbranded. They found that children were significantly more likely to choose the cartoon-branded products over the unbranded ones – and to prefer the taste of the branded food.
In addition, the researchers found that the effect was weaker for carrots than it was for gummy fruit snacks and graham crackers.
Lead author Christina Roberto wrote: “Our results provide evidence that licensed characters can influence children’s eating habits negatively by increasing positive taste perceptions and preferences for junk food. Given that 13 percent of marketing expenditures targeting youths are spent on character licensing and other forms of cross-promotion, our findings suggest that the use of licensed characters on junk food packaging should be restricted.”
Childhood obesity is at record levels, with 32 percent of US children and adolescents overweight or obese, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The researchers highlighted that the increase in childhood obesity – which has more than tripled since the 1970s – has coincided with increased marketing of products to children. Food and beverage companies spend more than $1.6bn a year on marketing products to younger consumers, according to Federal Trade Commission figures.
“Rather than advocating the use of licensed characters in the marketing of healthy foods, these findings suggest a need for regulation to curtail the use of licensed characters in the marketing of low-nutrient, high-energy foods,” the researchers wrote.
Despite finding no statistically significant preference for the taste of character-branded carrots, children were much more likely to choose all three foods if they were labeled with a cartoon character. A range of 72.5 percent to 87.5 percent of children selected the character-associated carrots, gummy fruit snacks, and graham crackers.
Published online ahead of print
“Influence of Licensed Characters on Children's Taste and Snack Preferences”
Authors: Christina Roberto, Jenny Baik, Jennifer Harris and Kelly Brownell