Did you know that a typical box of graham crackers tastes better to a kid if SpongeBob Squarepants smiling face is on the label? A recent study published in Pediatrics offers insight into how much the smiling faces of famous cartoon characters on food packages really does entice your children. The results may shock you, turns out those famous faces have a huge influence on kids taste buds.
A group of 40 children aged 3 to 6 years old decided that of the identical graham crackers, fruit snacks and carrots they were served, those with images of Shrek, Dora the Explorer and Scooby Doo on the packaging actually tasted better than those in original packaging. According to all three taste comparisons, the majority of children chose snacks featuring licensed cartoon characters, and approximately 53% of them indicated that the food with the characters actually tasted better.
While the study showed that the children clearly preferred graham crackers and fruit snacks with licensed characters, this did not hold true for carrots. Carrots packaged with cartoon characters compared to plain carrots did not as strongly impact the children’s desire to eat a carrot, the same way those famous mugs made the children want to reach for more sweet snacks. Researchers believe that because children are not typically used to seeing characters on vegetable labels, their taste preference may not have been as swayed as it was with snack food, or that their choices could have been based on levels of familiarity. This could explain why 11 of the 40 children chose plain packaging for the carrots, simply due to their preference for something ordinary rather than their liking of a character.
With children spending more time in front of the television rather than outside playing with friends, the familiar faces from cartoons may be having a stronger impact then years ago. A previous study in 2007 revealed that just two years after Nickelodeon characters SpongeBob and Dora began to appear on fruits and vegetables, 60% of grocery store products featuring similar characters on junk food. In the same year, Shrek became a spokesperson for various US Department of Health and Human Services campaigns while his image also appeared on products from McDonald’s, Cheetos, and Keebler, to name a few. The incongruous nature of using the same character to advertise both healthy and unhealthy products, may be subconsciously confusing children.
“Given that 13% of marketing expenditures ($208 million) targeting youths are spent on character licensing and other forms of cross-promotion,” conclude the study’s authors, “our findings suggest that the use of licensed characters on junk food packaging should be restricted.” Findings that the influence of licensed characters on taste perception was weakest with carrots could suggest that placing licensed characters on healthy foods may not be an effective strategy to make healthier items more attractive to children.
It seems as though SpongeBob may have to take a break from endorsing food all together, since shifting his focus to healthier snack options may not make a difference.