The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, is in line with recent research from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which also found that children were more likely to enjoy the taste of foods when they were branded with cartoon characters.
In this latest study, 80 children aged four to six were shown boxes of cereal branded equally as either ‘Healthy Bits’ or ‘Sugar Bits’, and half of each featured media characters. The children were asked to rate the taste of the cereal on a smiley face scale of one to five after sampling the cereal.
“Almost all children liked the cereal, but those who saw a popular media character on the box reported liking the cereal more than those who viewed a box without a character on it,” the researchers found.
In addition, children who were presented with the cereal branded as ‘Healthy Bits’ reported liking it more than those who were presented with the cereal named ‘Sugar Bits’. Children who were shown a box branded ‘Sugar Bits’ without cartoon characters reported liking the cereal significantly less than those in the other three groups. And there was no significant difference between children’s liking of the ‘Healthy Bits’ cereal whether or not the packaging featured a cartoon character.
“The results of this experiment provide evidence that the use of popular characters on food products affects children’s assessment of taste,” the authors wrote. “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.”
The researchers concluded that their findings could be used to help inform development of public policy regarding food marketing to children, as well as best practices for teaching children media literacy skills and healthy eating behaviors.
Meanwhile, a major industry initiative was set up in 2006 by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) , intended to shift the mix of advertising messages directed at children to encourage healthier lifestyles. So far 17 food manufacturers have signed up to the CBBB’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Among the requirements of the scheme, participating companies are only allowed to use third-party licensed characters in the marketing of healthy foods.
According to Federal Trade Commission figures, food companies spend about $1.6bn a year marketing products to children.
Source: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine
Vol. 165, No. 3, pp. 229-234
“Influence of licensed spokescharacters and health cues on children’s ratings of cereal taste”
Authors: Matthew A. Lapierre, Sarah E. Vaala, Deborah L. Linebarger