March 8, 2011 -- Seeing Shrek, Dora the Explorer and other popular animated characters on cereal boxes appears to influence kids' perceptions of how good the cereals taste, researchers say.
A taste-testing study among 80 young children at a big city shopping center found that those who saw a popular media character on a cereal box liked the cereal's taste more than those who saw a box with no character on it, according to Sarah E. Vaala of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and colleagues.
The cartoon characters particularly influenced ratings for cereal with a name that implied it was more sugary than healthy, Vaala and co-authors reported in the March issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
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"Messages encouraging healthy eating may resonate with young children, but the presence of licensed characters on packaging potentially overrides children's assessments of nutritional merit," they warned in their paper.
Trade characters like McDonald's Ronald McDonald and licensed characters like DreamWorks' Shrek have become omnipresent over the past decade in marketing food to kids, particularly less healthy products, noted study co-author Matthew A. Lapierre, MA, also of the University of Pennsylvania.
"There's a growing body of evidence that these characters are very effective," he told MedPage Today. "What our study adds is they're even changing how children experience products ... rather than just simple product preference."
The researchers made four versions of a cereal box that varied only in name (Healthy Bits or Sugar Bits) and presence or absence of a recognizable character on the front (in this case, the dancing penguins from the Warner Brothers movie Happy Feet).
Then 80 children ages 4 to 6 recruited for taste testing at a shopping mall in a large Northeastern city received dry samples of a cereal containing 6 g (0.21 oz) of sugar per serving -- an intermediate amount between Cheerios' 1 g of sugar and Fruit Loops Marshmallow's 16 g per serving.
When asked how much they liked the cereal on a five-point smiley face scale with 1 indicating "really do not like" and 5 indicating "really like," nearly all liked it regardless of packaging.
The taste scores were significantly higher when the box showed the character, though.
How well the kids recognized or liked the characters didn't influence their taste assessments, although the researchers noted that this comparison might have been compromised by the fact that only six kids didn't recognize the characters and that the characters were universally well-liked.
Surprisingly, kids who were told that the cereal was named Healthy Bits liked the taste more overall than those told they were eating cereal named Sugar Bits.
"That finding really puzzled us," Lapierre said in an interview. "We thought it would go in the opposite direction."
Kids liked Sugar Bits as much as Healthy Bits as long as the character was on the box, but liked Sugar Bits less when no character was shown.
One possibility is that the kids were responding to messages drilled in about healthy eating since "from a young age, children are commonly told that sugary foods are bad and should be avoided," the investigators noted in the paper.
If true, it would be promising evidence that healthy eating habits resonate with kids, though "disconcerting that the mere presence of a character on food packaging seems to override this judgement," they added.
Another possibility was that kids expecting sugary cereal were disappointed by the flavor whereas those expecting healthy cereal were pleasantly surprised by it.
However, this explanation drew skepticism from Lapierre, who noted that unpublished findings from the study pointed to no change in ratings of wanting parents to buy Sugar Bits after tasting the cereal, suggesting that ruined expectations might not account for the effect.
Whatever the reason, policymakers should be alert to the implications, the group argued in the paper.
"Not only do appealing and familiar trade and licensed characters manipulate young children's subjective judgements," they concluded, "the resulting heightened preference for food products featuring these characters is likely to contribute to unhealthy eating habits and increased materialism and parent-child conflict."