Want Kids To Eat More Veggies? Market Them With Cartoons
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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.
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 way 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.