Cartoon characters are not why your child prefers junk food, new study shows

Mar 28, 2019


Parents and lawmakers who believe cartoon characters lead children to choose junk food over healthy food may be mistaken, according to a new study conducted by a team of researchers including Assumption Assistant Professor of Marketing Bridget Leonard, Ph.D. 

Prof. Leonard collaborated with Margaret C. Campbell from the University of Colorado Boulder and Kenneth Manning from Colorado State University to run several tests where children chose between snacks with or without licensed characters – such as SpongeBob or Scooby Doo – prominently featured on the packaging. They found children are more likely to pick foods branded with licensed characters when choosing between similar products, like two packages of carrots. If the choice is between carrots or cookies, however, cartoon characters did not trump children’s taste buds. The article will appear in the April issue of the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing

“Our research finds that while licensed characters on food packaging may influence choice of brands when the food is the same, it doesn’t influence choice of healthy over indulgent options, or amount eaten,” said Prof. Leonard, the study’s lead author who was a CU Boulder Ph.D. candidate during the research. “We found, across several studies, that kids want food they think tastes good, and cartoon characters on packaging doesn’t seem to factor into their decisions. Only when food options taste the same do children preferentially choose the food item with characters on the packaging. When the food options are different, they choose the one that they prefer the taste of. And unfortunately, that also means that children aren’t more likely to choose a healthy option over an unhealthy option if the healthy option has a character on it.” 

Prof. Leonard added that there is a lot of concern from policy makers, corporations, and parents, that “putting cartoon characters on food packages is in a significant way contributing to childhood obesity – that it makes kids want unhealthy food more. But our research just doesn’t support that.” That means proposals like the United Kingdom’s 2018 effort to ban cartoon characters on junk food packaging may miss the mark. 

“More research is needed on how to encourage children to make healthier choices,” said Prof. Leonard. “We did find that the characters on packaging make parents see that food option as more fun and more ‘for kids,’ though. So maybe characters on healthy foods can help children indirectly – by encouraging parents to buy it for their kids.”

Read the full study here