Bryan L. sent us a link to an NPR story about the effects of using cartoon characters to market food to kids. The study, conducted by researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, had 80 children between the ages of 4 and 6 eat what they were told was a “new” cereal. The cereal was either called Sugar Bits or Healthy Bits, and in each case, half of the boxes included cartoon penguins and half didn’t. Here’s are the two options for Healthy Bits:

Kids were  then asked to rate the taste of the cereal, using a 5-point smiley face scale. Interestingly, kids rated the taste of Healthy Bits more highly than that of Sugar Bits (overall mean rating of 4.65 vs. 4.22). Less surprisingly, the presence of a cartoon character on the box led kids to think the cereal taste better (overall mean rating of 4.70 with a character, vs. 4.16 without).

You can read an overview of the article, “Influence of Licensed Spokescharacters and Health Cues on Children’s Ratings of Cereal Taste, which was published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

So it appears that kids are getting some of the message about nutrition and healthy eating, and that describing something as having lots of sugar leads them to evaluate it more negatively than they might have otherwise. (I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be a contrast effect, also. Maybe kids expect something  called Healthy Bits to be really gross and, if it doesn’t, evaluate it more positively than they would have, while they expect Sugar Bits to be super awesome and rate it particularly harshly if it doesn’t live up to their hopes. I know that type of comparative priming effect occurs with adults, where our initial expectations influence our later subjective assessment, but I have no idea to what degree that occurs with kids. Anybody know enough about childhood development to comment?)

However, cartoon characters have a strong influence on how kids evaluate the taste of cereal, enough to override their nutritional concerns. Put a cute penguin on Sugar Bits, and it suddenly tastes as good as a box of Healthy Bits without the penguin. Another study from researchers at the Rudd Center found that kids preferred to eat graham crackers, gummy snacks, and even carrots more if they were in a package with a popular cartoon character.

So the good news here is that kids may be willing to make better eating choices than we often give them credit for, and describing something as “healthy” isn’t the kiss of death we might expect. But the use of cartoon characters, such as tie-ins from TV shows and movies, is a powerful form of marketing. If such characters — especially, I assume, highly recognizable and popular ones — appear more often on less healthy options, they undermine efforts to guide children to develop healthy eating habits.

UPDATE: Reader qwirkle was able to get a copy of the entire article, which does make clear that the kids rating Sugar Bits lower than Healthy Bits wasn’t just an “expectations effect”:

Another explanation for the difference in children’s assessments of the cereal involves their expectations of the cereal taste based on the name. Specifically, the cereal used for this study had only a moderately sweet taste. Consequently, children may have been disappointed by the lack of sugary flavor in the cereal named Sugar Bits and pleasantly surprised by the sugary flavor in the cereal named Healthy Bits. At 6 g of sugar per serving, however, the sugar content was comparable to that of other commonly available sweet cereals (eg, 6 g in Honey Kix and 9 g in Honey Nut Cheerios). Nevertheless, whether the children were reacting to their expectations of the cereal’s taste or expressing their skepticism of the merits of sugary products, when the character was present on the box, children reported a more favorable subjective experience with the product.”