Anyone who's been to a grocery store with kids would say "Yes… duh"! So why did researchers at the renowned Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity conduct a study on the influence of licensed characters on children's taste and snack preferences?1 To provide solid, documented evidence that licensed characters can influence children's eating habits negatively. Based on their findings (described below) they suggest advocating the use of licensed characters for healthy foods and regulation of the use of this marketing approach for high-calorie, low-nutrient products. And not just foods targeted toward preschool-aged children. The four to six-year-olds in this study were influenced by characters watched more often by older children (like Scooby Doo and Shrek) even though they were less recognized.
In this study, 40 four- to six-year-old children were presented with two packages of three different snacks (graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and carrots) – one package of each snack with a popular cartoon character (Scooby Doo, Dora, or Shrek) and one package without. They tasted food from both packages of each snack and were asked 1) whether the two foods tasted the same or one tasted better and 2) which they would prefer to eat as a snack.
Results showed that children significantly preferred the taste of foods that had popular cartoon characters on the packaging, compared with the same foods without the characters. Likewise, the majority of children selected the food sample with the licensed character on it for their snack.
Study authors conclude that there is now evidence for advocacy groups to criticize the use of character licensing. While some industry-initiated efforts have already begun, like the Walt Disney Company ending its 10-year contract with McDonalds and Nickelodeon's 2005 announcement to license characters to produce companies, the vast majority of the licensing market still involves foods of poor nutritional value. For instance, while Shrek has become a spokesperson for various U.S. Department of Health and Human Services campaigns, his image still appears on products from M&Ms, Cheetos, and Keebler. Thus, the authors believe that these inconsistencies, in which characters are associated with both healthy and unhealthy foods sends mixed messages.
So what's the solution? Should the government get involved and regulate as was discussed in our Not So Happy Meal blog? Or should parents play a more active role in educating (as discussed in our blog Teach Your Kids to Spot the Block) and modeling healthy behaviors (as discussed in our blog Monkey See, Monkey Do)? Or all of the above? I do bring my young kids to the grocery store and I'll tell you they are drawn to the cartoon characters on the packages. But caving to their wants is not the answer and neither is leaving them at home. The grocery store presents so many good learning opportunities for healthy eating. So when I do buy them a treat I buy one without the character packaging and shift the conversation by asking them which fruit and vegetable they want to buy.
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1Roberto, C.A. (2010). Influence of licensed characters on children's taste and snack preferences. Pediatrics, 126, 88-93.