Be it SpongeBob SquarePants or Tony the Tiger, food companies have long used cartoon characters to market their products to children. But that tactic can also sway younger kids to eat fresh vegetables, according to a new study.
Sammy Spinach, Oliver Onion, Colby Carrot, Suzy Sweet Pea and a slew of cartoon vegetable characters with superpowers were developed as puppets by a nonprofit organization called Super Sprowtz. Using live puppet performances across the country and short videos featuring the veggie characters with stars like basketball legend Shaquille O' Neal, the organization has been trying to make vegetables more appealing to children.
One video has all the characters singing and dancing to the tune of Beyoncé's "Put a Ring On It." The revamped chorus? "If you'd like to eat healthy, put a veggie on it." (Perhaps the creators were acquainted with little kids' love of this song.)
David Just, a behavioral economist at Cornell University, and his colleagues wanted to know if Beyoncé-belting veggie superheroes could actually change children's eating habits. So they joined forces with Super Sprowtz and borrowed their characters to test them in elementary school cafeterias.
In three participating schools, the researchers showed the Super Sprowtz videos on TVs in the cafeterias near the salad bar. In two schools, they festooned the salad bar with a large vinyl banner showing the brightly colored veggie heroes. In three additional schools, the cafeteria featured both the videos and the salad bar banner, while two other schools had neither the videos nor the banner and served as a controls for the experiment.
Students in schools with the banner alone grabbed nearly twice as many servings of vegetables as those in control schools. But in the schools with both the banner and the video messages, the effect was even more pronounced: Students put three times as many vegetables on their lunch trays. The schools where only videos were shown didn't see a significant increase in how much veggies kids served themselves.
"The [banners] are visible from a long ways away," Just notes. He thinks that drew more children to the salad bar. "And if they had the TV once they got there, then they were [even] more likely to try" the vegetables.
The study included students from kindergarten through fifth grade. It makes sense that kids in this age range would be swayed by cartoon characters, says Andrew Hanks, a scientist at Ohio State University's Food Innovation Center and the main author of the study. "These are animated characters, and kids at that age like these kinds of things," he says.
Food and beverage companies know this, too, says Margo Wootan, a nutrition policy expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Kids are exposed to $2 billion worth of food marketing to kids each year," she says. Most of this marketing, she says, is "using characters to promote unhealthy food to kids" — highly processed foods like cereals or sugar-filled fruit snacks.
"My take on this is that these kids are going to experience marketing in some form," says Hanks. "Why don't we expose them to marketing to make healthy choices? As we show in this study, it can have a powerful impact."
Wootan agrees. She's part of a group of organizations that has pushed the food industry to cut down on the use of cartoon characters to sell foods high in calories, fat, sodium and sugar to children.
Schools trying to sell kids on healthier lunches are at a comparative disadvantage, she says, because "they are not marketing school lunch as cool." Using Zach Zucchini and Miki Mushroom is a great way to make healthier lunch seem hipper to students, she adds. And while familiar media characters may be more persuasive, she says that most schools don't have the money to license SpongeBob to market healthful lunches.
"I think doing something like this, certainly you can target entire schools," says Christina Economos, a childhood nutrition researcher at Tufts University. She says the findings also suggest that researchers need to better explore the role of branded media in getting kids to eat healthier foods. Child health activists have already tried similar experiments. For example, three years ago, Sesame Workshop partnered with the Produce Marketing Association and Partnership for a Healthier America to use Big Bird, Elmo and Abby Cadabby in messaging that aimed to make vegetables and fruits more appealing to kids.
However, marketing campaigns alone can't ensure that kids continue to choose healthful foods, cautions Economos. These efforts will need to be complemented with the good old (but less cool) tool called nutrition education, which has been shown to be effective in changing children's food habits. "There has to be education that supplements this," Economos says.