It's a tried-and-true marketing method: Slap a famous cartoon on food boxes and odds are children will be more likely to seek the food out at the store. But research now suggests that silly cartoons appearing on food boxes may also determine whether children will pester their mothers to buy the food and also the level of nagging parents are likely to experience.
Researchers analyzed surveys and interviews from 64 mothers who had children between the ages of 3 and 5. The mothers were asked questions about family eating and shopping habits, their use of media and how they dealt with their children's nagging.
The study, published in the Journal of Children and Media, found that packaging, characters and commercials all contributed to whether children pestered their mothers. The children who watched more television commercials were more likely to nag for foods that included cartoons on the packaging, even if they didn't like the food, researchers said.
"She picks up the characters by osmosis," one mother who took part in the study said of her 4-year-old daughter.
The bind that many parents face is that many of the foods that advertise popular characters are oftentimes not healthy, said Dina Borzekowski, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-author of the study.
"We know marketing works, so the trick is to make it work for healthier products," said Borzekowski.
Another mother of a 4-year-old boy said, "It really became clear to me how much TV impacts his preferences when he asked me to go to Burger King and I said, 'Why Burger King?' and he replied he had seen it on TV."
While researchers did not cite specific packages, mothers who were interviewed said the characters or commercials that drew the most attention were Dora the Explorer, Elmo, Spongebob and Scooby Doo.
But the so-called "nag factor" didn't stop there. The children who watched the most commercial TV also engaged almost equally in different types of nagging -- juvenile nagging, nagging to test boundaries and manipulative nagging.
Juvenile nagging consists of repeatedly asking for items, whining and even flailing arms and stomping feet. Children nagged to test boundaries by throwing a public tantrum and putting items in the cart even as their mother said no. Manipulative nagging consists of sweet talking the mother, or even saying that other children possessed the item.
"Our study indicates that manipulative nagging and overall nagging increased with age," Holly Henry, a co-author of the study and a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins said in a statement. Mothers of 5-year-olds recalled more negative nagging experiences, researchers said.
"It's been a battle with my child," said one mother. "No reward in whining." "Giving in was consistently cited as one of the least-effective strategies," said Henry.
Thirty-six percent of the mothers studied dealt with the nagging by limiting their child's exposure to commercials. And researchers said that may be one of the most effective ways to limit a child's nagging and consumption of potentially unhealthy foods.
Researchers also suggested not going to the store with a child, or trying to explain to a child before heading out why they would be tempted to buy certain types of foods and avoid buying others.
"I don't' think marketing is going away anytime soon, said Borzekowski. "We need to help parents deal with the current situation."