Cartoon characters alter kids' taste in cereal
March 7th, 2011
05:00 PM ET

Cartoon characters alter kids' taste in cereal

Cartoon characters attracting kids to unhealthy cereal is nothing new, but a new report says the characters can actually influence the kids' perception of taste.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communications developed four make-believe cereal boxes – two marked "Healthy Bits," and two marked "Sugar Bits."

One box of Healthy Bits and one box of Sugar Bits each featured the penguins from the movie "Happy Feet," and children were asked to try the cereals.

"If there was no character on the box, children who saw the 'healthy' on the label liked it more than the sugary one, even though they tasted the very same cereal," said Sarah Vaala, a doctoral candidate at Penn, and a study author. "When there was a character on the box, they chose the one with the character, whether it was healthy or not."

The take-home is a positive one, says Vaala, in that children could overlook a cereal being "healthy" if the marketing is done correctly, but she says it's a double-edged sword.

"Friendly characters on the box was enough to override that judgment of the health merits of the food," she said, "Unfortunately, these characters are used overwhelmingly on unhealthy products."

And while these findings could help educate parents and cereal manufacturers alike, Vaala says it will be an uphill battle.

"Parents can't explain to kids 'oh you just think that tastes good because it has a character on it," she said. "The parents are up against some really powerful marketing."

soundoff (62 Responses)
  1. Tammy

    Lol we are worried about characters on cereal boxes and not how we allow all the we are nutritious due to our fiber content just please dont read the sugar content etc..

    March 7, 2011 at 18:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joeriel

      I have no idea what your point is.

      March 7, 2011 at 20:06 | Report abuse |
    • BoSox Fan

      Agreed, your comment makes no sense.

      March 8, 2011 at 07:20 | Report abuse |
    • ekkeekke

      Was that even a sentence?

      March 8, 2011 at 09:17 | Report abuse |
    • Ro

      LOL @ the replies.

      March 8, 2011 at 10:49 | Report abuse |
    • Bigmatt


      March 8, 2011 at 11:33 | Report abuse |
    • Jamison

      Although the grammar in this post is atrocious, I think the point is valid. It is important to examine the psychological effects of advertising styles, but there is another issue to be addressed- that of the standards applied to determine whether or not a company can label their product "healthy."

      To clarify the original post (I think):

      We are worried about characters on cereal boxes, and not how we allow [companies to say], "we are nutritious due to our fiber content, just please dont read the sugar content."

      March 8, 2011 at 12:21 | Report abuse |
    • Metropl

      It seems to me that we enable the don't eat the poison because it's bad for you and diabetes, etc.

      March 8, 2011 at 12:41 | Report abuse |
    • Guin

      Try that again in English.

      March 8, 2011 at 13:49 | Report abuse |
  2. Justina

    Behaviors of some cartoon characters are unhealthy, I found, both in the East and the West.

    March 7, 2011 at 19:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Kai

    Ever notice that "friendly" characters used to represent cereals are characters that arent "friendly" in real life (i.e., pirates, soldiers, vampires and leprachans)?

    March 7, 2011 at 20:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Em

      As a currently active (and, mind you, friendly) soldier, I take offense to that.
      Unrelated to the comment thread, but it caught my attention. Careful what you say.

      March 8, 2011 at 08:01 | Report abuse |
    • What?

      Real life... vampires... leprachans... What world are you from?

      March 8, 2011 at 08:56 | Report abuse |
    • Ro

      Real life... vampires... leprachans... What world are you from?

      this made me pee myself.

      March 8, 2011 at 10:49 | Report abuse |
    • Guin

      All the vampires and leprechauns I know are lovely people.

      March 8, 2011 at 13:50 | Report abuse |
    • Mileena

      Yeah real life vampires, leprechauns... comment made me LOL!!!!!

      March 8, 2011 at 13:52 | Report abuse |
    • Lol

      "Real life... vampires... leprachans... What world are you from?"

      haaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. funny.

      March 8, 2011 at 13:54 | Report abuse |
  4. Kai

    And yeah, they market the hell out of "fiber-enriched foods" ever since we (the public) were told we're not getting enough fiber. So now Americans think everything with "PACKED WITH FIBER" written on it is great for their health. Which makes me think of a new marketting idea for cigarette companies: add a pinch of fiber to the cigs.

    March 7, 2011 at 20:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. 25 cm pole

    Simply ridiculous that our cereal boxes have food and characters AS WELL AS sugar, when there are people with almost no sugar, and certainly no characters starving in Africa. It is completely irresponsible for us to have sugar AND cereal. Unreal what this country is coming too.

    March 8, 2011 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • nick

      Really??? Because people are starving in Africa we shouldn't enjoy our food (within reason) or put a picture of Cap'n Crunch on the box?

      Would it be OK if it was sold to me with a picture of a starving orphan on the box? That way I can feel guilty for being American while eating bland unflavored mush.

      Your an idiot.

      March 8, 2011 at 10:28 | Report abuse |
    • JPede

      First, nothing in this study has anything to do with starving Africans. Its about the effects of marketing on children's perception, and how that can influence eating habits. Secondly, perhaps you are unaware of the recent studies linking sugar intake to athersclerosis? Heart disease is this nations #1 killer. Did you know intake of more than 100 calories/day for women and 150 calories per day for men is enough to cause an increase in the plaque in your arteries? Yep, even if you're thin.
      As an aside consider have you thought what diabetes is costing our nation and people? Diabetes, which is NEVER listed as a cause of death, is also of significant concern for the heart failure and kidney problems it creates. Its can make for a horridly slow death, and a very expensive one. Adult onset diabetes (type 2) isn't cured by a drug or two, it is only moderated.. the long term damage is often done long before the individual even knows they have a diabetes problem.

      March 8, 2011 at 11:02 | Report abuse |
    • Orchids

      Nick doesn't know the difference between "your" and "you're," but he calls other people names!

      March 8, 2011 at 11:36 | Report abuse |
  6. NoCartoons

    We banned catroons for tobacco and alcohol. We need the same for food products.

    March 8, 2011 at 11:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Guin

      First intelligent comment I've seen.

      March 8, 2011 at 13:51 | Report abuse |
  7. Orchids

    Companies are allowed to market foods as they wish, but it would be nice if parents would stand firm and say, "Sorry kids, soda/candy/sugary cereal is for special occasions only, and we won't keep them around the house for daily eating."
    It's parents' responsibility to teach their children what "moderation" means, and some junk food every day is probably too much.

    March 8, 2011 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. jamesB

    I have girls, 4 and 9 years old. It doesn't take a genius to see that both obviously favor the products with cartoons. I just try to reinforce the concept (with the girls) that the only reason they like some products more is because of the picture. They get it. It doesn't alter their behavior, but at least they understand why they think something taste better. Any good chef will stress the importance of presentation. This is presentation for kids.

    March 8, 2011 at 11:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. nameless

    just pitiful. of all the things to do studies on.... hello... medicine and space exploration.. nobody will ever be on the same page. thats why we're doomed.

    March 8, 2011 at 12:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. dancingmachine

    @Kai, I am a real life friendly leprechaun. I find your comment disrespectful to my fellow leprechauns and I. Careful what you say or else you might also have some angry unicorns arriving at your house beat you up.

    March 8, 2011 at 22:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Steelerbelle

    Here's a news flash, if you don't want your kids to eat it, DON'T BUY IT. Stop letting your kids dictate to you.....geeze its not that hard. Do you really want more government telling you what you can and can't buy. Personally, I always loved Cap'n Crunch growing up and I never had a weight problem. My 3 daughters ate both good for you and sugar cereals and they have NO weight problems at 32, 28 & 26. They played outside exercising instead of sitting in front of the TV and playing video games. Wake up parents, your kids need to get off their butts.

    March 9, 2011 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply

    As a health concious cartoon and a lifelong member of the Cartoon Cereal Union I call on all cereal cartoons, as well as the current Wheaties athelete of the day to walk off of your boxes and strike in the streets, in the fronts of stores, and in the dreams of obese children everwhere! Any anime scabs thinking of representing our union backed healthy cereals better not cross our imaginary lines. STRIKE!

    March 9, 2011 at 09:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. colomchik

    I think it's a bit ridiculous that marketers can manipulate children's minds into eating what not good for them. I mean, it totally makes sense. Seeing a cute little cartoon penguin from a movie they liked would certainly attract them to wanting that kind of cereal. And it makes sense because it brings them in money, whether the cereal is healthy or not. However, why don't they use that same method in order to get children to eat something that's good for them? The same way that they can get the children to want to pick an unhealthy cereal, they can get them to choose one that is healthy. Why cut down the amount of obesity there is in the world by starting at a young age for them to eat healthy? Place extra fiber in the cereal and less sugar and put that same penguin on the box. This will get the children eating healthy at an early start and will get them more used to it. Then, once they get older, they're used to the taste and will choose it over the unhealthy cereal now that they understand the idea behind eating and staying healthy.

    March 13, 2011 at 14:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Erica

    It is entirely possible to teach children about proper nutrition. My youngest does not even know what a McDonald's is and wouldn't think about asking for some nutritionless fluff for cereal. They currently eat either oatmeal with fresh fruit, or an organic Kashi cereal for breakfast if we are not cooking.

    There's no excuse for overloading kids on sugar because they ask for it. It is okay to say no!

    April 1, 2011 at 14:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Jackie

    This story reminds me of a situation with my cousin when we were kids in the 1950's! Our community sold milk from two dairies, Sniders and Jorgensens. Sniders milk had a cartoon cow on the carton, and Jorgensens had only printing. Cousin Nicky would only drink from the carton with the cow! One day there was only Jorgensens milk in the fridge, so I lied and told her it was Sniders. When she discovered she had drunk Jorgensens milk, she had a temper tantrum.

    April 4, 2011 at 06:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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    What is the name of the study? Where can I find the actual study? I just wanted to look into this a little bit further.

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