Based on their experience during countless schleps to the market, moms know that kids pick cereals whose boxes have cartoon characters on them. Previous research  by Yale scientists explained the phenomenon: kids say that the stuff poured from such boxes tastes better than the same stuff when poured from a cartoon-less box. The same thing happens when kids pick graham crackers, carrots and gummy fruit snacks.
Can this observation be leveraged to encourage kids to select healthier foods? Yes, it turns out. But the story isn’t as straightforward as you’d think.
To study the impact of licensed media spokescharacters and other nutrition cues on kids’ taste assessment of food products, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania fed cereal from a box that had been labeled either “Sugar Bits” or “Healthy Bits” to 80 kids. Half the boxes in each “brand category” were adorned with cute cartoon penguins , while the other half were not. The kids were between 4 and 6 years old.
The scientists then asked the kids to rate the taste of the cereals on a 1 to 5 smiley face scale. Surprisingly, kids loved the Healthy Bits, which scored 4.5 regardless of whether the penguin was present or not. However, the penguins had a marked impact on kids’ taste preferences for Sugar Bits. For this brand, the taste score sans penguins was below 3, whereas it was over 4 if the cereal was delivered from a box featuring the friendly penguins.
Lead author Matthew Lapierre didn’t know for sure why this happened. “One of the explanations we’ve been working with is that kids grow up with this negative association with sugar,” he reasoned in an interview.
To support his hypothesis, Lapierre noted that many cereal brands have replaced the word “sugar” with other words that imply a somewhat healthier message. Sugar Smacks are now called Honey Smacks, for example. Sugar Crisps are now sold as Golden Crisps.
If Lapierre is right, then these healthier messages have been internalized by kids to the point that they have negative perceptions of the word ‘sugar’ in the faux brand created by his group.
Then again, a smiling cartoon penguin is all it took to boost the kids’ favorability ratings to match those of Healthy Bits. The penguin trumps the healthy message in the minds of kids.
Lapierre’s group concluded that “not only do appealing … characters manipulate young children’s subjective judgments, the resulting heightened preference for food products featuring these characters is likely to contribute to unhealthy eating habits.”
Expect consumer groups to demand an all-out ban on Tony the Tiger any day now! The write-up appears in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine .