(Health.com) -- Shrek, Dora the Explorer, and other animated TV and movie stars beloved by children have been moonlighting as junk-food pitchmen in recent years. And they're good at it.
Fifty percent of children say that food from a package decorated with a cartoon celebrity such as Shrek tastes better than the same exact food from a plain package, according to a new study.
And when given a choice, the vast majority of kids pick the food from the cartoon-adorned package as a snack, the study found.
The use of TV and movie characters on food packaging is "designed to access certain feelings, memories, and associations," says Dr. Thomas Robinson, M.D., a professor of child health at the Stanford University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. "If you associate certain products with things that are otherwise considered fun, it's going to make those products seem more desirable."
Cartoon characters tend to appear on junk food, which makes health experts even more concerned about the magnetic effect they have on kids. Although characters such as Dora and SpongeBob SquarePants have been used to market fruits and vegetables, they are most often used on chips, candy, and other unhealthy snacks. SpongeBob has even hawked Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"Parents may not set out to buy unhealthy products," says the lead author of the study, Christina Roberto, M.S., a doctoral student at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, in New Haven, Connecticut. "But kids can be really, really persuasive. They see them and they want them, and it gets difficult to have that battle in the grocery store."
Characters from TV and movies have appeared on food products for years, but until now little research has been done to examine how they influence children's food choices.
In the study, which is published this week in the journal Pediatrics, Roberto and her colleagues presented 40 children ages 4 to 6 with paired samples of graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and baby carrots. Each pair of sample foods was identical down to the clear packaging, except that one of the packages had a sticker of Shrek, Dora the Explorer, or Scooby Doo on it.
Between 50 percent and 55 percent of the children said that the food with the sticker on it tasted better than the same food in the plain package. (The percentage varied with each food.) And between 73 percent and 85 percent selected the food in the character packaging as the one they'd prefer to eat as a snack.
"Marketers know that cartoon characters sell food products; that's why they use them," says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. "This study really nails it down. Now we have evidence for asking--no, requiring--food marketers to stop using cartoons to market junk foods to kids."
The American Psychological Association and other organizations have likewise called for the elimination of all marketing of food products to children, a stance that Robinson says is reasonable.
"Young children, particularly under the age of 7 or 8, really don't understand the persuasive intent of marketing," he says. "That seems inherently unfair, and something we should protect children from, just like we protect them from other things we think are beyond their cognitive ability, like pornography."
Using the power of cartoon characters for good--to market healthy foods--may be less effective than restrictions on junk-food marketing, Roberto says. The cartoon characters had the least influence on children's preferences when they were on the package of baby carrots, she notes.
"It might be that they're not used to seeing [the characters] on vegetables," Roberto says. Or it might be that kids already know that "a carrot is a carrot is a carrot," she adds, whereas they're not sure how
Food and beverage companies in the U.S. spend more than $1.6 billion each year to attract children's attention, and 13 percent of that is spent on character licensing and similar cross-promotion efforts, according to Federal Trade Commission data cited in the study.
But the calls for reform have had some impact. The use of licensed characters on food products declined between 2006 and 2008, according to research conducted by the Rudd Center.
"It's good to see the voluntary work on this," says Roberto. "But we'd like to see more."