|According to the study, characters help kids remember cereal brands. (QMI Agency files)
Children think cereal tastes better when there's a cartoon character on the box, a new U.S. study shows.
In recently released study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania had 40 kids between four and six taste an unnamed healthy cereal from an all-natural food store.
"The use of trade (e.g. Ronald McDonald) and licensed (e.g. Shrek) spokescharacters is a popular marketing practice in child-directed products because the presence of these figures helps children identify and remember the associated product," reads the study.
The kids were divided into four groups. Two groups got the cereal in a box adorned with penguins from the movie Happy Feet. One box was named Sugar Bits and the other was called Healthy Bits. The other two groups got Sugar Bits and Healthy Bits in plain, cartoon-free boxes.
The kids who ate from the penguin-decorated box said the cereal tasted much better, regardless of the name. When it came to the plain boxes, the kids who ate Healthy Bits gave better reviews.
The results don't surprise Matthew Johnson, director of education at the Media Awareness Network, a Canadian organization that helps parents and educators teach young people how to understand and be critical of the media they're exposed to.
"We've really seen a lot of evidence accumulate over the years that advertisements and branded images have an effect on young people from a very early age," said Johnson, noting that kids start recognizing logos and branded characters as early as two years old.
"It's certainly a matter of concern, I think, for any parent and for anyone that is invested in setting social policy. Young people don't really have the ability to engage critically with advertising messages, and that's something that has to be taught to them," said Johnson.
The report's authors said the study's results show kids are somewhat health-conscious, preferring Healthy Bits to Sugar Bits, but when it comes to influencing their tastes, packaging trumps all.
"The use of media characters on food packaging affects children's subjective taste assessment. 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," the report's authors conclude.
Johnson said the fact that the images were from an already existing movie likely made a difference. Kids have trouble discerning the difference between content and advertising when the same characters appear in both.
"They're going to report liking it better because they've made up their minds in advance as a result of the media exposure," he said.
The study was published this month in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.