by Marion Nestle
Mar 12 2011

Once again, kids prefer foods in packages with cartoons

Yet another study confirms the obvious: kids prefer foods with cartoons on the package. Why should this be obvious?  Why else would the cartoons be there if not to sell products to kids?

The latest study comes from the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

It says pretty much the same thing as the study published in Pediatrics last year by investigators from the Yale Rudd Center.

The newer study did something cute. It invented a cereal box and tested kids’ responses to it and variations with and without cartoons of the penguins Mumble and Gloria from the movie Happy Feet .

The results:

  • Kids preferred the taste of the cereals with cartoons
  • They preferred boxes labeled “Healthy Bits” more than “Sugar Bits”
  • They most preferred “Healthy Bits” with a cartoon
  • They least preferred “Sugar Bits” without a cartoon

This is why is would be a good idea to just say no to cartoons on food packages aimed at kids.

  • Or maybe it would work if they marketed ONLY healthy foods with cartoon characters. Imagine if Kashi Go Lean or Old Fashioned Oatmeal were labeled with cartoon characters, but they were only allowed plain boxes for Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms. . . Just speculating, here.

    I’m generally not in favor of marketing toward children, but if it’s going to happen, why not make it happen only on the healthy stuff. I can picture carrots with bugs bunny pictures on them, spinach packages with Popeye, etc.

  • Al

    I can see Melissa’s point and have often wondered about it. Shouldn’t there be a positive side to this story if proper food, healthy, 100% natural is aimed to aid in teh fight against obesity or proper nutrition? I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

  • Nice study.

    Sounds a little like Wansink had a hand in its design or his work influenced it and Brownell is building up evidence for a food fight with regulators on food addiction and marketing.

    Keep it up!

  • Surveys of kids’ preferences have now officially been done to death.

    Why not get started surveying to learn what frightens kids on food packages?

    Then we can begin in earnest to legislate & mandate truly terrifying packaging and labeling. Isn’t that what some folks secretly want – to program our kids’ default setting to “fear food, be very afraid” (in addition to fearing everything else)?

    A child is never too young to be set upon a path of subtle paranoia and righteous orthorexia that will serve them for a lifetime!

    Gee, thanks Mom.

  • Anthro

    This is all well and good, but as long as we have a government (and a supreme court) that considers any and all advertising to be “speech”, I don’t see that we’ll get anywhere no matter how much evidence we produce. The same people that are making policy and laws these days, are the ones who thumb their noses at “elites” (experts) and science.

    So, when voting time comes around, remember to actually VOTE, and work for, and fund, candidates who see a role for government in protecting and funding public health. In the meantime, speak up when people make the knee-jerk “nanny state” arguments about kids and food.

  • The solution is simple, ban the use of cartoons on food packages, period. It can be done legally because marketing to children is inherently deceptive, as I have argued for years and as Georgetown Professor Angela Campbell argued in an elegant article for a symposium that I organized back in 2005 on marketing to kids.

  • A few summers ago, my stepson (age 11 at the time) came to stay with us for a few weeks after a LONG time of being apart. I took him grocery shopping with me when he arrived so that we could buy foods that were a compromise of my healthy influence and his existing habits. We ended up in the cereal aisle (of the organic grocery) and I told him he could pick whatever he wanted. Without pausing to consider for even 1 second, he pointed and said ‘that one’. When I asked him if he knew what flavor it was, his response was ‘no, but it’s the only one with a cartoon character on it’ (it was a drawing of a koala). It was a huge Ah-Ha moment for me. And, it was an opportunity for me, as a parent, to talk with him about what was inside the box – and inside the boxes of the other cereals too. Ultimately, we made a healthier choice together.

    While I’d love it if marketing to children, including cartoons on any food packaging, were made completely illegal, it isn’t very likely. Instead, I take my own responsibility to learn what’s in the packages and to learn how to talk with my children in age-appropriate concepts so that we can make healthy choices together as a family. Usually, it means leaving the cartoon characters on the shelf and bringing the more ‘grown up’ packaging home.

  • Adam

    Kids preferring cereal with a cartoon doesn’t surprise me. Kids preferring “Healthy Bits” over “Sugar Bits” does.

  • Stacy

    Although the idea of “well, let’s just allow cartoons on healthy foods and not unhealthy ones” sounds tempting, I see a major flaw – most of the very healthiest foods are the whole, unprocessed ones, like fresh fruits and vegetables. So once we depend on cartoon marketing, we’re assuming some level of packaging, and thus some level of processing.

  • Felipe G. Nievinski

    Time to start putting more cartoons on healthy foods! Folks, the ideal regulations that we all agree just won’t come anytime soon, face it! It’s time to fight with the same weapons. Here’s a win-win situation: offer cartoon companies some good PR in the form of “an opportunity to help children eat right” in exchange for letting their characters be used in certified organic food packaging at no cost?

  • Pingback: The Diary of a Victim of Cartoon Violence « The Life and Times of Nathan Badley…()

  • winoceros

    The author’s conclusion is not supported by the premises presented by the study author, even assuming it was a valid study.

    If the purpose of putting a study in an article is to support the position of a writer, it would be nice to tie a valid conclusion to it. Otherwise, it’s just another opinion piece.

    Who has the purse? The kid or the mom? It’s not like every ingredient isn’t in plain sight on the box.

  • L.A.

    In response to several comments about putting cartoon characters on healthy foods like veggies and fruit, may I suggest taking a stroll in the produce section of your local mass grocery retailer and see “who’s” on-pack. Dora the Explorer and / or SpongeBob have a presence on baby carrot packages.

    I have not seen data to indicate whether this is affecting sales of this sweet treat, but it probably makes Nickelodeon feel good about their “marketing to kids” efforts.

  • David Brown

    Not quite on the topic of cartoon cereals, but there is a clip going around where the cereal boxes light up like Christmas lights to catch your eye.

    Cartoon cereals where the Trix Rabbit lights up? How is a kid supposed to resist?

  • Let me first start out by saying I’m probably a bit biased on this as I work for a major cereal company. But….

    While I firmly believe that cartoon characters draw kids into buying products, I don’t see anything wrong with it. It is literally the same as scantily clad women in beer commercials enticing guys to buy beer or cars or health supplements, etc. It’s advertising, plain and simple. It’s what makes the commercial world go round.

    Beyond that, I won’t even go into the fact that the kids are not the ones actually buying the cereal.

    On the flip side, while we’re on the topic of sugary cereals, the Big 3 (General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Post) are all reformulating their Kids brand cereals to contain less sugar and more vitamins, minerals, and whole grains.

    It’s not a perfect solution to sugary cereals, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    Feel free to check out my own weight loss blog here: Just Another Weight Loss Blog

  • Hi.

    It seems quite bizarre that all these studies appear and to what effect?

    Anything can be deemed healthy with the right spin. This article/ study is actually a marketers dream in the fact companies can now target kids just that little bit better.

    When you watch adverts, healthy is all the rage. You have shakes to give kids and chocolate spread to give for breakfast. Why? But these companies are making money because parents who have little education and give into childrens whims buy the junk.

    This study is not going to find parents, like most studies, unless it gets featured on new networks/ reality shows or even gets legal intervention and remove sugars and bad stuffs within kids foods.

    We seem to be giving our kids an unfair advantage and we do it with blindfolds on.