The limited sway of cartoons

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Children can be influenced to eat sugary snacks that carry stickers of cartoon characters such as Shrek, Scooby-Doo or Dora the Explorer, but not healthier foods like carrots with similar stickers, according to a new Yale University study.

Researchers at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity asked children ages 4 to 6 which snacks they wanted: gummy fruit, graham crackers or carrots labeled with stickers of the cartoon characters, or identical snacks without the stickers. They also asked them which tasted better.

Most of the 40 children wanted the snacks labeled with cartoon stickers. Most also said the gummy fruit and graham crackers with the stickers tasted better, but not the carrots.

“We now have clear evidence of something many people suspected — that the use of these licensed characters has an impact on children’s preferences in food,” said Dr. Thomas Robinson, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Stanford University School of Medicine.

At a time when a third of all children in the U.S. are overweight or obese, the study underscores both the power of advertising to influence young children and the ineffectiveness of using the same techniques to convince them to eat more nutritious foods, the researchers said.

The practice of labeling foods with toys, characters and celebrities aimed at children and teens grew 78% from 2006 to 2008, according to the Rudd Center, but only 18% of those foods met nutritional standards for children. About two-thirds of the promotions came from manufacturers who had pledged to limit marketing to children under the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in 2006.

The new study was published in the June 21 issue of the journal Pediatrics.