What influences our kids’ food preferences? One factor is certainly the way foods are marketed to kids, and what sort of branding appears on the packaging.
A paper published earlier this month in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent medicine investigates whether licensed media spokescharacters on cereal packaging affects young children’s taste assessment of the products. The study looked at 80 kids with a mean age of 5.6 years. It’ll be no surprise to learn that the use of characters on the food packaging meant the kids liked the cereal more. The authors concluded that,
’The use of media characters on food packaging affects children’s subjective taste assessment. 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.’
So this begs the question as to whether we can place cartoon characters on healthy foods that may traditionally be rejected by young children — spinach, carrots, and fruits for example. Character endorsement on healthy products has been tried before with Sesame Street in 1999 teaming up with a company called Adam & Eve who produce fruit juices and Nickelodeon in 2005 announcing that it would license characters to companies who wished to produce healthier foods for kids. However, the true impact of such marketing strategies to promote healthy foods largely remains unknown.
A paper published last year in the journal Paediatrics also looked at the influence of licensed characters on children’s taste and snack preferences and did try to tease out whether character endorsement would influence preference of healthy foods such as carrots.
This study tested three foods — graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks and carrots — on 40 children aged 4 to 6 years. Each of these three foods was presented in two packages, one with and one without a popular cartoon character. The characters used were Dora the Explorer, Shrek and Scooby Doo. Children then selected the food they would prefer to eat.
Most kids selected the packaging with the cartoon character for their snack. No surprise there. However, what’s interesting about this study is the effects of branding carrots with cartoon characters were weaker than the effects of branding the graham crackers and gummy fruit snacks. The authors of the paper express concerns that more than advocating the use of licensed characters for healthy foods, their results point to the importance of restricting the branding of unhealthy foods with such characters, as this will increase their consumption among this age group. They conclude that the use of licensed characters on the packaging of junk foods be restricted.
Personally, I think the direct marketing of unhealthy foods to young kids should be prohibited. Encouraging children to make the right food choices should be down to their parents and others who look after them, and any direct advertising, marketing, provision of incentives such as free toys, and promoting unhealthy foods in schools to raise funds, should be abolished.