I happen to know a five-year-old fan of SpongeBob SquarePants who told her father, in no uncertain terms, that SpongeBob mac and cheese tastes better than any other macaroni and cheese. It turns out she was right—sort of. A recent study from the Rudd Center at Yale found that characters like Scooby-Doo and Dora the Explorer actually influence how children experience the taste of junk food, as well as their choice for a snack. The study provides more evidence that marketing can trump children’s senses. Last year, researchers at Stanford found that children believed that food wrapped in McDonalds packaging tastes better than food wrapped in plain wrappers.
What interests me most about the Rudd Center study, however, is that it found no statistically significant evidence that media characters have an impact on how children experience the taste of carrots. That’s important news for policy makers. It’s the fashion in some nutrition circles to advocate for using media characters to market healthy or “healthier” food to children, but that has never made sense to me. It’s not good for children to get in the habit of choosing food—any kind of food—based on which character is on the package.
Meanwhile, market research suggests that parents are not swarming to buy branded produce. A 2008 survey found that half of parents said that cartoon characters on packaging would not affect whether or not they buy produce—and almost 30 percent said that they “probably” or “definitely” would not buy character branded fruits and vegetables. The same survey showed that while sales of branded produce increased when the products were first introduced, sales declined as much as 67 percent over the course of a year.
Taken together, these studies suggest that branding bananas and other produce will not have a serious impact on children’s diets. Based on the results of their study, the Rudd Center researchers suggest that rather than ramping up the use of licensed characters to market healthy foods, we need to restrict the use of these characters to market low-nutrient, high-energy foods. Christina Roberta, the study’s lead author, writes, “Given that 13% of marketing expenditures targeting youths are spent on character licensing and other forms of cross-promotion, our findings suggest that the use of licensed characters on junk food packaging should be restricted.”
One thing is clear: we can’t rely on corporations to stop using characters on junk food packaging. Such marketing is increasing, not decreasing—in spite of food industry pledges to responsibly address the childhood obesity epidemic. Instead of turning carrots into shills for Scooby-Doo, we should be helping children develop relationships with food that have to do with taste and nutrition, not celebrity. Government restrictions on food companies’ use of characters in marketing to kids will afford parents more freedom to shape children’s healthy eating habits.