Monday, June 28, 2010

And the World Tastes Good 'Cause the Ogre Thinks It Should

If Shrek can get kids to eat onions, then maybe he can get them to do just about anything.

Anyone who dismisses the food industry's power to influence kids' minds and palates should take a look at today's Wall Street Journal and a Yale study on the influence of licensed characters on kids' taste, published online last week in the journal Pediatrics.

 In a page 1 story of the Wall Street Journal, an industry group marketing Vidalia onions said sales of the root veggie jumped after it enlisted children's character Shrek as a "spokesman" of sorts. The big, green ogre adorns bags of onions, and Vidalia displays in some stores include a big stand-up cutout of the cranky but lovable character.

The article quotes more than one person attributing sales to the Shrek campaign's influence. One mother interviewed for the story said her child pitched a fit until she bought Shrek-marketed onions at the supermarket and he gobbled them up at home even though he never eats vegetables. I'd rather have that powerful influence on my side than working against me.

A few days ago, when I picked up my school-age son from a day at camp, he whined at me to take him to McDonald's. After all, my dinners don't taste as good. My meals come with a side of broccoli or corn, not Transformers, "Ice Age" personalities or -- GASP! -- "Star Wars" characters. I have a stubborn streak and can't be worn down too easily, but some moms and dads may crumble under such assaults as "You don't love me!" and "Happy Meals taste better."

As a matter of fact, regardless of cooking quality (Me: "PLEASE, just take one bite of the lemon pancetta potato salad. What do you mean you don't want to taste the chicken larb with napa salad? Do you think any other kid you know gets to eat this stuff?" My son: "Can I be any other kid I know?"), there's good evidence that kids really like a food better if it's promoted by a popular pitchman... or pitch-ogre or pitch-girl, such as Dora.

Researchers at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity gave 4- to 6-year-old children pairs of identical food items in packages with and without a sticker of one of three cartoon characters (Shrek, Dora the Explorer and Scooby Doo). The children were asked to taste both identical food items (eg. graham crackers in a package without a cartoon character and graham crackers in a package with a cartoon character), and to say which tasted better and which they would rather have for a snack.

The researchers, in their report published online June 21, said that the kids "significantly" preferred the character-stickered snacks over the identical non-character snacks.

They concluded that marketing that uses licensed characters, even those geared to older children, can substantially influence young children's taste preferences and choice of snacks, especially for energy-dense, nutrient poor foods. They said the findings suggest that this type of marketing of junk food should be restricted.

The study, which examined the choices of just 40 children from a small geographic area, isn't the last word obviously. But I find it to be compelling.

Defenders of such marketing say parents, of course, bear the ultimate responsibility for guiding kids' choices. That is true. I can, and usually do, say "no" to my children when they want to eat fast food or other foods that contain more fat and salt than I think is healthful.

But that is NOT the point. The point is whether it is ethical to use sophisticated psychological methods to influence children, who aren't even old enough to understand or legally consent to other matters involving their health, including psychological treatment, on their own. I don't think that some marketing Pied Piper should even attempt in the first place to lure minors toward questionable health choices.

And industry leaders who say they market specifically their "healthful" options to kids are simply being disingenuous. They know that they are building loyalty not to a healthful lifestyle but to their brand. If you asked a typical consumer, after years of marketing, to quickly tell the first thing they think of when you say "Burger King" or "McDonald's" or "Wendy's," are they going to reply, "apple wedges" and "baked potato"?

I have a confession. I like some McDonald's stuff. I eat at the chain's restaurants when I travel, and sometimes I love a hot packet of fries or Filet-O-Fish. But I'm old enough to understand the company's pitches to me, as well as the consequences of choosing its food, and hopefully I'm able to make those decisions judiciously -- meaning I don't eat big combo meals and I save those fatty fries for occasional splurges. Plus I try to avoid going when the kids are with me, which means I make even fewer trips to Micky D's than I used to.

There are other splurges (all legal, of course). But that's between me and the doughnut shop.
As for the cheesy appeals to my children, well, I know how to keep my wallet shut. Unless, of course, Shrek wants to shill collards and bok choy.

You may also like: The Center for Science in the Public Interest Threatens to Sue McDonald's Over Happy Meals Toys

Burger King Picks New Agency for Children and Family Ad Campaigns.

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