Marketing to kids: Cartoons sell, but so does health
Familiar cartoon characters make cereal taste better, confirms a new study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. I doubt anyone’s surprised by this finding – after all we all know that marketing helps sell more products, and that companies wouldn’t be spending large sums on licensing the cutest and most popular animated heroes if they weren’t convinced of their value. But this study has another quite surprising finding worth discussing, so please read on.
University of Pennsylvania researchers, Led by Matthew Lapierre, randomly assigned 80 kids aged 4-6 years to try the exact same unfamiliar cereal from four different packages, and rate how much they liked what they ate. The packages resembled standard cereal, and had two varying characteristics: the presence or absence of happy feet penguins and the cereal name.
As expected, the kids who were treated to the happy penguin cereal liked it better – the mean rating they gave penguin cereal was 4.7/5 compared to 4.16/5 for the no penguin cereal.
What’s in a name?
Does the name of the brand make a difference? There are many cereals whose name evokes sweet taste -- “frosted”, “honey” and “cookie” are part of many popular brand names. The researchers called two of their test cereals Sugar Bits and the other two Healthy Bits. So which of these brand names do you think kids would prefer?
The researchers can only speculate why Healthy Bits won over Sugar Bits. The optimistic and promising hypothesis is that the message that too much sugar isn’t good for you is sinking in, and that kids are looking for healthier foods. Another explanation the study authors offer is that Sugar Bits created an expectation of high sweetness, and since the cereal was moderately sweet (6 gm of sugar per serving) it didn’t deliver on its created expectation of sugar nirvana.
Cartoons characters rule!
Despite the fact that Healthy Bits won over Sugar Bits when the package was free of cartoons, when there was a cartoon on the package the image overrode the brand name. It seems like the kids assessed the product on its merits – unless the characters winked at them from the box.
What should parents do?
We’re all affected by packaging and branding. While we as adults may be over cartoons’ charm, we, too, fall for appealing packaging and actually “taste” visual cues. Wine tastes better when it has a beautiful label and branded foods and beverages taste better than private label equivalents.
The Institute of Medicine called industry to stop using cartoon characters to advertise food products that are high in calories and low in nutrients. Although many companies pledged to do just so, there have been very minor advances in the practice of responsible marketing to kids. Cap'n Crunch and Tony the Tiger continue to adorn cereal boxes in which half the calories come from sugar.
Parents are the guides and decision makers regarding what’s going to be served at home. It’s up to us to set nutrition standards. The most effective step we can take is to educate our kids about marketing. Once kids understand that the cartoon has absolutely nothing to do with the cereal and is only there to push their buttons part of the cartoon’s magic disappears.
We can also use the power of visual cues with the food we make at home, and take advantage of the fact that attractive food encourages consumption and even improves taste when we serve healthy foods and especially fruits and veggies, so be creative!
Are kids really leaning towards healthier foods? I sure hope so! I’ll take any suggestion of good news about our eating habits wherever I can find it!
*Photos courtesy of the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
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