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Flawed Yale Study On Junk Food Promotes Policy Without Evidence

Over the years, we’ve paid a great deal of attention to the use of cartoon characters to sell fresh produce:

The Bitter Truth About Promoting Produce To Children

Is It A License To Print Money?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Characters and Marketing

Grape “Character” Analysis

Pundit’s Mailbag — PBH/Imagination Farms Alliance Questioned

Being Consumer-Focused

Disney Disconnect

There was a burst of excitement over this marketing technique, especially when various studios decided to become more flexible with their financial demands as they realized they wanted to be seen on the side of the angels.

Yet that initial enthusiasm seems to have waned. Kroger, for example, held a unique license to use Disney characters on many food products — completely separate from the Disney Gardens project. Yet that project was quietly terminated — not likely because sales were too high.

Grimmway Farms was once making many headlines for taking on the Nickelodeon characters — another project that has seen its day.

Now to some extent the challenges of cartoon-character marketing in produce are unique to produce:

First, generally retailers only carry one brand of each item. So whereas the cereal aisle can have a kids-oriented cereal and the stores can perhaps pick up extra business because they still sell adult cereals, produce departments have to switch what they currently sell to the cartoon version, and there is the possibility that this could dissuade as many buyers as it attracts. In other words, even if young children push their parents to purchase Dora the Explorer baby carrots, maybe 15-year-old boys banish the item from their lunch boxes and this results in less total demand.

Second, the companies that took on the brands fell into one of two categories. Either they were industry leaders, which meant they had precious little incentive to push customers to favor the cartoon brand and simply had it available at customer request, or they used it in markets where one chain wanted to differentiate itself or the companies that took on the cartoon licensing were secondary players in that commodity, without the production, sales staff and marketing program to boost demand.

All the sudden, though, the latest headlines are filled with words claiming that characters are very powerful influencers with children. USA Today headlined its article, Cartoon Characters Tilt Kids’ Food Choices Toward Junk Food:

Kids think snacks taste better when popular cartoon characters such as Shrek and Dora the Explorer are plastered on the packages, a study shows.

Nutrition experts have long argued that such images shouldn’t be used to market junk food to kids, especially given the childhood obesity epidemic. About one-third of children and teens in the USA are either overweight or obese.

For the latest study, researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity gave 40 children, ages 4 to 6, three identical pairs of snacks: graham crackers, gummy fruit and carrots.

One package of each food had a cartoon character — Scooby-Doo, Dora the Explorer or Shrek — on the front; the other didn’t. Children were asked if the foods tasted the same or if one tasted better.

The findings, reported online today in the journal Pediatrics:

  • More than two-thirds said they would choose the snack with the character on the package.
  • About half of the kids said the foods tasted better from packages with the cartoon characters.

“This shows how powerful and influential these characters can be,” says Yale researcher Christina Roberto, the study’s lead author.

Although some cartoon characters are on healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables, the majority of characters are pushing junk foods, she says.

Parents face an uphill battle when they go to the supermarket with their children because kids are drawn to the characters on products, Roberto says.

We’ve read the study, titled Influence of Licensed Characters on Children’s Taste and Snack Preferences and found it raised at least as many questions as it answered.

The researcher’s, Christina A. Roberto, MS, Jenny Baik, BA, Jennifer L. Harris, MBA, PhD and Kelly D. Brownell, PhD from Yale University’s Rudd Center, tried to make the study robust but there were some real questions about the validity of the study. It had a very small sample size — only 40 children were studied. And this was only 50% of the group they invited to participate.

No research seems to have been done on the 50% of parents that did not give permission for their children to participate, but it seems at least plausible that these might be parents more skeptical of the whole idea of cartoons and didn’t want their children being exposed to more of them. If so, the sample is self-selecting for families more enthusiastic about cartoon characters, an attitude that could easily be reflected in the children.

The researchers also note that the study deviates from protocol typical for double-blind peer-reviewed studies. Double-blind procedures mean that “…neither the subjects of the experiment nor the persons administering the experiment know the critical aspects of the experiment; a double-blind procedure is used to guard against both experimenter bias and placebo effects.”

In other words, the methodology chosen for this study meant the researchers knew both the point of the study and which product had the character on it. This means that intentionally or unintentionally the experimenter could have influenced the children.

Our experience in merchandising also points to another possible flaw in study design. The researchers seem to have contrasted a blank package with one with the character on it. But this is problematic. It might be that children prefer bright colors or an “object of interest” on their products. In other words, maybe if the non-character boxes had bright color flowers on them or pictures of landmarks or beautiful people or pictures of familiar items, say toys, that children would have preferred those.

One gets the sense that the researchers are straining to reach a conclusion that they wanted. For example, there is a reference that claims that there exists “correlational data that suggested the appearance of SpongeBob SquarePants on vegetables at Grimmway and Boskovich Farms coincided with an increase in the sales of those items.”

The “data” — if one wants to dignify it as such — consists of an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune, titled Hey, Popeye! It’s SpongeBob Spinach, which the researchers accessed on March 1, 2005! The article says nothing about increased sales from the cartoon characters — it can’t, since the article is a piece about the fact that such characters will, in the future, appear on produce. The photo caption clearly says: “SpongeBob SquarePants will be promoting healthy veggies, like spinach and carrots, starting next month.” Note the word “will” — that is pretty sloppy scholarship.

The other piece of supposedly “correlational data” is an old Grocery Headquarters article from 2007 that quotes both Grimmway and Boskovich — but says nothing about sales. The article is behind a pay wall, blocking free access to the web page, but here are the relevant quotes:

Phil Gruszka, vice president of marketing at Bakersfield, Calif.-based Grimmway Farms, says his company’s alliance with SpongeBob Square Pants has been a learning experience. “There’s an opportunity for children to eat healthier today, and carrots play an important part in this. Kids are naturally attracted to baby carrots, both for their taste as well as their size, which makes it an ideal snack for lunch boxes. However, as we looked into it, we discovered not enough kids were including healthy snacks in their lives, so developing a relationship with the folks at Nickelodeon was a logical next step for us.”

Parents, Gruszka adds, have greeted the program with much enthusiasm. “They are happy that their kids are motivated to eat more produce and are especially relieved that they don’t have to negotiate food choices with their kids,” he says. “Retailers were looking for a program like this and are actively seeking ways to address childhood nutrition issues. They are amazed to see the influence a licensed character like SpongeBob has on kids who are literally begging their parents to buy our carrots because they recognize the character on the packaging.”

Oxnard, Calif.-based Boskovich Farms is leveraging SpongeBob’s popularity through its line of spinach products. “Many Americans do not consume the suggested number of servings of fresh produce, but it is even more important for today’s growing youth, many of whom are affected by childhood obesity,” says Lindsay Martinez, director of marketing. “Spinach is one of those super-vegetables which has so many nutrients and health benefits. It is low in calories and a good source of vitamins A and C, iron, folate and fiber. We felt that produce could be more kid-friendly when marketed with a character such as SpongeBob SquarePants.”

To help get its healthy message across, Grimmway trademarked the phrase “Carrots, the Kid-Friendly Vegetable” and lists carrots’ nutritional benefits on its packaging. The company features holiday-themed packaging several times a year. Gruszka says that has become another way for retailers to create excitement in the produce aisle, have a fresh new look and build eye-catching displays. The program is supported in-store with a variety of POS collateral.


Though spinach is not traditionally a kid-friendly item, Boskovich’s Martinez says SpongeBob Spinach gives parents a needed nudge in getting kids to at least try the vegetable. “Our package graphics are specifically targeted to appeal to kids and busy families. Bags offer a microwave-in-bag option, kid-friendly recipes and ‘Nicktrition’ suggestions for healthy lifestyles,” she says. Boskovich Farms backs its program with signage, contests, interactive Web tie-ins and in-store demos featuring SpongeBob character “meet and greets” and in-pack giveaways of temporary tattoos.

It is impossible to read those paragraphs and claim that they provide “correlational data” supporting the thesis that the appearance of cartoon characters coincided with an increase in sales. Not to mention that the pieces are from three- to five-years ago and that a mere glance at the two company’s web sites would indicate that these two companies, whether they own any licenses or not, are certainly not promoting any of these lines.

Whatever happened to scholarship? Whatever happened to Yale?

There are tidbits of interest. The researchers claim the preference for cartoon characters on product was less dramatic in produce than with graham crackers or gummy fruit snacks. This might be due to familiarity, as more processed products are sold with cartoon tie-ins, or it might be that beautiful orange color of carrots is an independent appeal. We just don’t know.

Our anecdotal experience with the Jr. Pundits is that they do like cartoon characters and will often insist that we buy them. We often do — once. But our experience is that, though cartoon characters may make eating foods children already like to eat a little more fun — and so they look for the Shrek Yogurt in the fridge, for example — the impact of cartoon characters does not magically transform their preferences. And although in the store they may see a character on the spinach and cry for it, they will, in fact, not eat spinach if they don’t like it, just because of the character on the bag so the spinach will go to waste.

The “study” is really a hack job to promote a particular policy outcome. The researchers take these 40 kids and leap to a conclusion that literally has nothing to do with the research. The researchers proclaim a policy outcome that could not be drawn from the research no matter what the results. The researchers proclaim: “These findings suggest that the use of licensed characters to advertise junk food to children should be restricted.”

Where does one begin? First, the study did not deal with advertising at all. It provides no information as to whether advertising has any effect. It dealt solely with packaging.

Second, the study was between identical product, with and without characters on the packaging. The study didn’t show… couldn’t show… that characters make kids prefer junk food over the healthy food they would prefer without characters.

To do that, the researchers would have had to do a study with both, say, cookies and, say, collard greens. They would have to identify what percentage of children selected the cookies vs. the collard greens and then show that putting the characters on the cookies boosted that preference.

This “study” seems to be more interested in asserting unsupported policy solutions than in providing useful research and scholarship.

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