Ever notice something weird about breakfast-cereal mascots? Think of the Froot Loops toucan, or the Trix rabbit, or Cap’n Crunch, or even that weird-looking bird that’s always going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. All of them, if you line their respective boxes up all in a row, are drawn on the front with their eyes looking down.
There’s a vaguely creepy reason for this: It’s so they can seemingly meet the gaze of the kids trailing their parents down the cereal aisle. And that is so the littlest grocery-store customers can feel a connection with the mascot —and, by extension, the contents of the box it decorates. And into the cart the sugar flakes go.
Creepiness aside, though, there’s plenty of research to back up this tactic — in general, kids are more drawn to a food product if it’s represented by some sort of character, be it an anthropomorphized tropical bird or a squat little pirate. (I think? What is Cap’n Crunch supposed to be the cap’n of?) A study published earlier this week in Obesity Reviews, for instance, found that food mascots, like the Kool-Aid guy or the Cheetos cheetah, may contribute to childhood obesity by building kids’ loyalty to sugary, fatty, or otherwise unhealthy products. And familiar characters from nonfood realms have the same effect of drawing kids toward junk: In a Pediatrics study from 2010, kids aged 4 to 6 reported enjoying snacks more if the package was decorated with a sticker of Shrek, Dora the Explorer, or Scooby-Doo.
Notably, the effect held up across very different food groups — the researchers used graham crackers, fruit gummies, and carrots, all of which were considered tastier if they seemed to carry a beloved cartoon’s seal of approval. The problem, though, is that most of the time, the carrots and other healthy items aren’t the foods getting the cartoon treatment. It’s the gummies, the sugar cereals, the sodas endorsed by polar bears, the fast-food burgers peddled by friendly clowns. Research tends to paint this kind of character-based marketing as bad for kids simply because it’s only been used for unhealthy products — veggies just aren’t marketed the same way.
What if they were, though? A study recently published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that it may be possible to co-opt the strategy that’s served the junk-food industry so well — that kids will respond to characters shilling salads, too.
For the study, researchers from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs recruited ten elementary schools in an unnamed “large urban school district” to redecorate their cafeterias to showcase a set of cartoon vegetables called the “Super Sprowtz” (it’s a good thing they were elementary schools, too, because any kid within spitting distance of adolescence would mercilessly mock such a goofy name). Some of the schools had a vinyl banner displaying wrapped around the salad bar, some played videos where the Sprowtz extolled the virtues of healthy eating, and some did both (a fourth group of schools served as the control and made no changes).
At the end of the experiment, schools that had just the banners or just the videos had seen small upticks in the number of kids using the salad bar. In schools that used both strategies, though, the difference was dramatic: The number of salad eaters more than tripled, from 10.2 percent to 34.6 percent — illustrating, the researchers wrote, that the “combination of marketing strategies and healthy choices has great potential for improving what children take and eat, both in and out of school.”
An element that’s especially worth noting here is that the kids opted on their own to take the vegetables, as opposed to just receiving meals that already included them. Offering healthy food is one thing, but getting kids to actually eat it is another thing altogether. There’s evidence that peer pressure can help convince kids to consume more veggies; so can straight-up bribing them — but besides being logistically complicated and expensive, respectively, both of these tactics also remove autonomy from the equation, which makes it less likely that a one-time decision will translate to a long-term habit.
“Just like adults, kids are more likely to stick to their choice if they feel they made it freely,” study author David Just, director of the Cornell program, said in a statement. “Kids who are nudged to choose vegetables using fun marketing campaigns are more likely to eat them than those who are forced to take them.” The challenge is coming up with, well, fun marketing campaigns — something cooler than “Super Sprowtz” might be a good idea. Especially when the other side’s characters already have such a head start.