Monday, July 5, 2010

Is Scooby-Doo to blame?

In this age of pre-prepared processed meals and endless hours on Facebook, it’s no wonder kids are getting fatter. In the US, obesity rates have doubled for preschoolers (2-5 years old) and more than tripled for children 6-11 years old. To explain this alarming obesity trend, many blame the accessibility and affordability of fast food. As a graduate student I often relied on cheap take-out to sustain myself. Luckily I quickly discovered that in Vancouver, sushi costs less than a McDonald’s meal, offering an interesting alternative. If my rent didn’t force me to live below the poverty line (hey, this PhD’s got to be worth something, right?), I would have thought this was heaven. In any case, I’m digressing. Cheap fast food is one part of the equation, kids drooling, lifeless, in front of the computer and the television is probably another part. Interestingly, a recent study suggests that another contributor to the obesity crisis is no other than… Scooby-Doo. And Dora. And Shrek.

The researchers were interested in finding out if putting the image of a popular character on the packaging of a product (this marketing ploy is called “character licensing”) is an effective way to sell food to kids. To test this, the researchers studied three foods: graham crackers, gummy bears and baby carrots. The participants in the study, children aged 4 to 6 years old, were presented with two packages of the same food item (for example, graham crackers). The only difference was that one of the packages had a sticker of a cartoon character (Scooby-Doo, Dora or Shrek) on it. The kids were then asked to say if one of the two foods tasted better, and if so, which one. They were also asked which food they would prefer to have for a snack.

So, does it work? Are children that oblivious to this obvious and dubious marketing trick (Scientific Chick challenge: Write a sentence with more than 3 words ending in -ious)? Absolutely. Overall, children perceived the food items with the cartoon on them to taste better than the ones in the plain packaging. This finding was statistically significant for the “junk” food (the crackers and the gummy bears). Not surprisingly, the children also indicated they would prefer the snacks with the characters on the packaging. As it turns out, character licensing is especially effective in children because they lack the ability to understand that the advertisement is meant to be persuasive.

You would think that all you would have to do to solve the obesity crisis is to slap Elmo’s face on broccoli and apples, but the fact that the character licensing experiment didn’t work as well with the carrots suggests this wouldn’t necessarily do the trick. The researchers only studied 40 children, a relatively small sample size to draw out any solid conclusions, but it’s still an interesting finding. I find it a little worrying that cartoon characters can lead to a more positive perception of the taste of junk food. I find it very worrying that food and beverage companies spend more than $1.6 billion per year on advertising for kids. I guess Ramen advertises for grad students and nobody gets worked up about that.

Reference: Influence of licensed characters on children’s taste and snack preferences. (2010) Roberto et al. Pediatrics, 126(1):88-93.

5 Responses to “Is Scooby-Doo to blame?”

Fawn said...

I'd be willing to bet that for 4-6 year olds, a larger study would find similar results. Ugh.

You know what I think also contributes a lot to obesity? Food additives. (And I include things that are "foods" such as high-fructose corn syrup.)

I know that I don't have any kind of scientific basis for saying it, but I think every time we use canned or bottled ingredients, we are adding things to our food that are doing us harm. Since we've changed the way we cook and eat at our house, I've become so much more aware of all the extra chemicals we used to eat, even when I thought we were cooking healthfully. Ugh again.

Bill Rockenbeck said...

I think it's hilarious how pious "skeptics" like you can launch a vicious attack on a glorious industry like food marketing.

@ Fawn: Yes, some additives can be problematic. I may have a post coming up on high-fructose corn syrup, too. Thanks for the comment!

@ Bill: A+ on the assignment. :)

Rassles said...

Yeah, but I would totally rather have Flintstones vitamins than regular vitamins, and Batman bandages instead of Band-Aids. So I lose.

Rassles, I'm totally with you on the band-aids. The Hello Kitty ones are just too cute!

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