Can branding improve school lunches? This is the question that researchers Brian Wansink, David R. Just and Collin R. Payne attempted to answer in a study on the choices made by school aged children. In a research letter published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, they explained that children were twice as likely to choose and eat an apple if it had an Elmo sticker on it. On the other hand, putting an Elmo sticker on a cookie did not increase the likelihood of children selecting the cookie.
While these findings are interesting, the implications for food marketing are less clear. Does this mean that farmers and public health authorities should start entering into licensing agreements with Sesame Street, Sponge Bob and Disney? In their conclusion, the authors of the study note that “just as attractive names have been shown to increase the selection of healthier foods in school lunchrooms, brands and cartoon characters can do the same with preliterate children.” But is that simple?
On the positive side, using recognizable cartoon characters to market healthy food to children could increase their consumption of healthy foods, leading to better health outcomes. It could help level the playing field between the fast food industry and the farmer’s market when it comes to attracting children’s attention and interest. It could make it easier for parents to get their children to eat healthy foods.
On the negative side, if cartoons are used to market health food, it may weaken the argument that advertising directly to children is inappropriate. Saying that McDonald’s can’t hand out cheap plastic toys with its meals if the farmer’s market is handing out cheap plastic toys with each basket of peaches seems hypocritical. Even if a distinction were made between healthy and unhealthy food, who would decide where the line between the two is once you get into the murkier territory of crackers and juice, for example. Furthermore, if Disney Princesses are promoting grapes, aren’t the grapes in turn also promoting Disney Princesses? Do we really want to use healthy food in order to further endorse what these brands are trying to teach our children?
What do you think? Should sellers of healthy food adopt a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” strategy and start using Elmo to market fruit and vegetables? Or should they take a stand against direct advertising to children?
Photo credit: moonlightbulb on flickr