New study reveals how Tony the Tiger is controlling children's minds

If you give a kid a choice between a healthy and a sugary cereal, the kid will tend to choose the healthy option. But what if you stick a beloved cartoon character on the box? Then all bets are off.

Lots of breakfast cereals and other foods that are primarily targeted at children like to put "spokescharacters" on the packaging, so that the kids associate the food with the lovable mascot. These spokescharacters can be original mascots - like Tony the Tiger or the Trix Rabbit - or licensed characters from other properties, like Shrek or the Flintstones. There's some good, basic psychology behind that marketing decision, as kids are able to remember nonverbal representations like spokescharacters far more easily than they can written descriptions or packaging.

But just how important are these spokescharacters in determining what kids want to eat, and can it override other considerations? That's what researchers at the University of Pennsylvania looked into, gathering eighty children between the ages of 4 and 6. The children were offered boxes of two fake cereals called Healthy Bits and Sugar Bits, some of which had well-known media characters on them and some of which did not. The kids were then asked to rate the tastiness of the cereal on a scale of one to five, all without ever getting to actually eat any of the cereal.

When the kids were then allowed to sample the cereal, two clear trends emerged. Kids consistently enjoyed the cereals more if they had media characters on them, and they consistently enjoyed Healthy Bits more than Sugar Bits, despite the fact that it was all the same cereal. The kids who liked the cereal the least were those who were given Sugar Bits with no characters on the box. There was no significant difference in enjoyment between Healthy Bits that had characters on the box and Healthy Bits that didn't.

However, the preference for media characters was overall stronger than the preference for healthy cereal. So what does all this say? The results seem to indicate that kids do want to eat healthy, and they are more likely to enjoy foods that they are told are healthy, but the presence of an appealing spokescharacter can mess up that good impulse. As the authors conclude:

"The results of this experiment provide evidence that the use of popular characters on food products affects children's assessment of taste. 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."

Via Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.