Spokescharacters Make Kids' Cereal Taste Better, Study Finds

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals: Big Kids

spokescharacters kids cereal

Characters don't seem to affect the taste of healthy-sounding cereal, but they make sugary cereal taste better. Credit: Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine

Sure, you know companies use characters such as Ronald McDonald, SpongeBob SquarePants and Shrek on packaging to convince children to buy their products. But these characters may appeal to more than just your child's mind.

Having popular media characters on a cereal box may actually influence children's opinions about the taste of the cereal, according to a study published today in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Companies commonly use spokescharacters to market to children because it helps them identify and remember the product -- especially with younger children who are not yet capable or consistent readers, the researchers say.

But beyond examining how characters help when it comes to marketing, the study evaluated 80 children between the ages of 4 and 6 to see how licensed characters on food packaging affect a child's assessment of the way food tastes. And, in light of the increase in childhood obesity, they also looked to see if taste preference is affected by packaging cues about the cereal's nutritional value.

After just a brief exposure to a new cereal, children rated the cereal significantly higher when the box featured popular characters. Simply adding spokescharacters to the cereal box made the children enjoy the cereal more, the study shows.

The name of the cereal also contributed to a child's opinion, however, not in the way the researchers predicted. Without a character on the box, children liked a cereal named Healthy Bits more than those who tried the same cereal, but under the name Sugar Bits, according to the findings.

When a spokescharacter for a kids' cereal was added to the box, there was no significant difference in how much the children enjoyed Healthy Bits, but the Sugar Bits group said they now liked their cereal as much the Healthy Bits group, the researchers report.

This means children enjoyed the cereal more with just the simple addition of popular media characters to the cereal box.

The researchers offer two possible explanations for these findings: First, children are commonly told sugary foods are bad from a young age, so they may have been avoiding Sugar Bits because of the negative association.

Or, since the cereal used had only a moderately sweet taste, the authors suggest the children may have been disappointed by the lack of sugary flavor in a cereal named Sugar Bits, but pleasantly surprised by the sugary flavor of a cereal named Healthy Bits.

Either way, the researchers say the results demonstrate the power of licensed characters to affect young children's assessments of food products and represent an important step in understanding how marketing practices affect young children.

"With increased information regarding the nature of the influence of marketing techniques, policymakers can encourage more appropriate means of child-directed food marketing so that parents or guardians and pediatricians can determine how best to teach children media literacy skills and healthy eating behaviors," they conclude.

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