by Brian Dyak
A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation seems to confirm a long-standing suspicion of many parents: Many food ads aimed at children are heavily weighted (pun intended) to calorie dense, nutrient poor snack foods, cereals, candies, sodas, and fast foods. In fact, the researchers for the study of nearly 9000 food ads on child-centric channels say they found NO promotion of fruits, vegetables, and poultry. What’s more, up to 16% of these food advertisements reportedly utilized celebrities and cartoon characters in their promotions. Of course, this is only one study. Indeed, many have pointed to the collaboration between children’s movies and fast-food toys, or special edition food packaging, but on the other end of the spectrum, many members of the creative community are working hard to encourage kids to “Play 60” and “Pass the Plate” towards healthy alternatives.
Researchers say the average child sees 1 PSA promoting healthy eating or physical activity for every 26-130 of food advertising. Not surprisingly, then, children and teens tend to retain the messaging in food advertisements which, according to the National Institute of Health’s Institute of Medicine (IOM), significantly influence their food choices and purchasing behaviors. What’s more, repeated exposure to ads for unhealthy foods is said to be associated with increased rates of obesity in U.S. children and teens.
Fortunately, key players in advertising and members of the entertainment community are stepping up to the (dinner) plate. The ten top food industries have initiated the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, pledging to devote at least 50% of their advertisements to healthier foods. Additionally, celebrity and cartoon endorsements and packaging are leaning toward healthier fare, such as baby carrots and whole grain foods. Indeed, on occasion baby carrots with Sponge Bob or Dora the Explorer have ended up in the fridge.
Cartoon characters and celebrities can play a crucial role in changing eating and health behaviors. Let’s face it, their involvement does one absolutely essential thing….they attract the audience’s attention. A study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation noted that the food industry spends approximately $208 million annually on character licensing. The same study demonstrated that children are significantly more likely to choose foods – even healthy foods – with cartoon characters appearing on the packaging, compared to the same foods without the image of popular characters.
Simply put, cartoon characters and popular children’s characters can go a long way to helping our children make healthy eating choices. It is a service to our audience, as members of the vitally influential entertainment industry, that we support and encourage healthier licensing initiatives, and incorporate the importance of healthy food choices and physical activity into the story lines of popular children’s entertainment.