24 September 2010

Cartoon stickers on healthy snack packaging increase kid appeal

Healthy snack + princesses!

via www.snack-girl.com

Sigh. I appreciate this post by Snack Girl, aka Lisa/@Snack_Girl_, but it also crushes me a little. Through no fault of Lisa's! Her post brings to light a study that shows, yes indeed, cartoon characters on food packaging -- even healthy food such as fresh fruit -- makes it more appealing to kids.

This is one of those rare times where a perfectly good hack -- slapping a cartoon sticker on a package containing a healthy snack -- gives me pause.

I'm having a "where's the line?" feeling. On one hand, anything we can do to get quality food into our kids (and to help it compete with crappy processed snacks) is good, right? Self-righteousness isn't going to help anyone's health. On the other, is there long-term harm in perpetuating the "food as entertainment" message? Isn't that part of what's driving obesity levels up...that we eat to quell boredom as much as physical hunger?

Am I thinking about this to much?

Thank you, Lisa, for sharing this post with me. My ambivalence is not a swipe at you or your wonderful site. You're just seeing the latest symptom of my discomfort with the food marketing machine.

Your comments

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Asha - Thanks so much for posting this - and I hear you. I'm just trying to be realistic about snack packaging. And, I want to give parents another tool in their arsenal to combat junk food. I also featured http://www.snack-girl.com/snack/easy-kid-friendly-healthy-snack/ - Snack On A Stick!
:)

Realistic = good! That's the thing...I rarely get on my soapbox about stuff like this. So I'm glad I have a place to be able to talk about it with smart, thoughtful parents.

That is way cool because kids are fans of cartoons. It is good that it's included on packages of fruits. That is the trick of their marketing skills and encouraging kids to eat fruits.

We don't welcome a lot of cartoon characters in our house*, so those bags and stickers are more of a problem than a plus.

On the other hand, my picky eater might eat more fruit to get stickers. I fondly remember the childhood pleasure of getting the one banana with the Chiquita sticker and then wearing the banana sticker the rest of the day.

Did scarcity make the sticker more desirable? Probably, especially with a sibling who ALSO wanted the sticker.

This seems like adding sticker might be a nice periodic treat (1 out of 5 or something), but I don't think I'd want it to be a daily expectation.

*In case anyone is wondering, we think licensed characters are a form of planned obsolescence for toys and kid gear. One year's hotly desired Elmo backpack is totally unwanted when the kid moves on to Super Why. We'd rather buy a green backpack and have it get used to oblivion than buy something with a built-in expiration of interest.

I think year ago I would have been appalled, because I was sure my kids wouldn't get sucked into the Disney web of loooooooove, but alas, my oldest turned four and her brain rebooted, and the need for glitter can not be satiated without a princess or two.

We still try to limit how much character gear they wear outside of the house (I cringe when i see kids as mini billboards) but we're guilty of buying princess pajamas to make bedtime easier, and we have princess stickers to help convince my oldest to do daily medications. Maybe if I had an exceptionally picky eater I would be tempted to slap a princess on some spaghetti, I don't know.

I think as long as there is a conversation going on about why they like said character, it isn't all bad. My oldest will tell me that she likes princesses because they are kind and funny, which helps temper all the "pretty pretty" talk.

From what I have obvserved in my own life I think it's the food itself that we fall in love with overtime. I grew up on junk food (poptarts, sugary cereals, etc) and there for still salivate when I even just think of it. And I've always struggled with a weight problem because of it. I don't think the packaging makes as big a difference over a lifetime as the actual food. My guess is that in general kids will grow out of a certain love for these cartoon characters but the food itself will still be something they will desire. And if that food is a healthy food, it sounds like a good plan to me!

For example I can think of Tony the Tiger. I loved those stupid commercials as a kid.. but now couldn't care less. Then again.. the thought of a bowl of frosted cornflakes is making me hungry right now!

Eating out of boredom isn't a major culprit. Eating processed food that is laden with salt and fat IS a major culprit. Childrens' bodies and taste buds are getting wired to crave that kind of "food." Yes, we are already hard-wired that way to some extent, but not to the extreme levels present in processed foods today.

I don't necessarily buy into the fact that we have to make the food more appealing to our kids anyway, but I also know that I have been blessed with a kid who would rather eat broccoli than take another bite of chicken (yes, I bribe my kid with broccoli, stop laughing!) However, I do remember a previous post where someone suggested that putting sugar sprinkles on veggies would help kids eat them and everyone seemed to jump right on that one and I was actually appalled at how many parents thought it was a great idea. I say, if it gets your kids eating healthy, what's wrong with stickers-so much better than trying to 'mask' the flavor with sugar sprinkles or 'dips' for everything.


I want my children to be able to think critically. Our conversation about what advertising is, how advertisers try to manipulate our perceptions of their products, and how we can interpret all of the information available in order to make choices that benefit us, started when my oldest was five or six. If a child is capable of perspective-taking, then they can understand that someone who earns money by selling more and more fruity candy, MIGHT be willing to tell somebody else a lie in order to get them to buy it.

I think that using licensed characters to "sell" healthy food choices to our kids is a lot like using peer pressure to get them to expand the range of their picky palates ("Oh look, honey! Your classmates all love sandwiches - don't you want to try that too?")

In my opinion, these things come back around to bite parents (and kids) in the *rse on the first day that your child's favorite licensed characters du jour begin "selling" the idea that adults are mostly ignorant buffoons (South Park, I'm looking at you), and the child's peer group begins "selling" the idea that drugs and sex are a great way to spend the afterschool hours (coughMIDDLESCHOOLahem).

I think the idea is to make the food more attractive and this is one way to do it. When our now grown girls were little, I used a marker to make their boiled eggs into animals or funny looking people, and I would draw faces on sandwich bags and such to get them to open their minds (and mouths) about these foods (turmeric was big when the middle child turned 6, since she was guaranteed to eat anything it had stained yellow). With our little bitty boy, we are finding that despite the strict regimen of organic, mostly raw, fresh and non-processed, peer pressure from outside interactions (we don't even watch programs that have advertising in them) makes him ask for chips and cookies. I don't think you can get away from it, so why not let it work for you if the opportunity arises? Not so much, "Look honey, Dora likes it!" so much as, "Here's a banana, and look! Dora's on it!" Of course teaching them how to think responsibly for themselves is key, but at some age, most likely if you vilify things they enjoy, they are just going to stop listening to you, so try to keep moderation in the forefront. Note: now that our girls are grown and making their own food choices, they eat occasional junk with their friends, but when given the choice, they PREFER real food and 90% of the time, they CHOOSE to drink water.

So, excuse me while I be really snarky. My hack for getting kids to eat healthy snacks instead of unhealthy snacks: I don't give them unhealthy snacks. I don't buy them, and if I do have a treat in the house then I regulate their use. If she doesn't want to eat the healthy snack, then she doesn't have a snack. She knows my position so she hasn't tried any hunger strikes yet, and I don't anticipate her doing so since she likes plenty of healthy foods since that is mostly what she eats.

We also try to help our kids be media-savvy. They have yet to see Spider-Man in a show or game, but they fell in love with him at first sight. So when they want something because his picture is on it, we talk about it: What does that have to do with Spider-Man? Why is his picture there? How is it any different from a comparable product? Sometimes we let them try it out. They begged for superhero vitamins, and were dismayed to learn 1) they're too sugary and tart, and 2) they don't look at all like the pictures on the box.

We also talk about the food and how it might affect the character. Spider-Man has super powers, sure, but he needs to be strong. Eating that sugary treat would make him weaker... what foods might help him be as strong as he can be?

We don't want to make it all too forbidden, but we want our kids to know when someone's trying to sell them on something, and what questions to ask. Kids don't want to played for fools either.

Here's the voice of reason I was looking for in my own head. The long view. Yes!

Thank you all for the intelligent, reasonable thoughts on this probably silly hangup of mine. I knew you'd lend balance!

I don't think the cartoon gimmick is that bad a thing. My son is a pretty picky eater, but I've been able to get him to try fruits and vegetables by reading him stories in which the characters are eating those foods. Then I say, "you want to eat some carrots like the bunny in the story?!" and he gets excited about eating them.

So, looking beyond your own household, and realizing that some parents aren't as informed and health conscious as the lovely people on this site... I work at a school and I would love to see a banana covered in stickers than the average fruit roll up.

Well, I think we all like to have attractive things around us, and appearance is an important part of a pleasant dining experience. I'd rather eat a hamburger on a pretty plate with a nice napkin and maybe a vase of flowers than that same exact hamburger from a paper wrapper on a plastic tray. While princesses might be dubiously artistic to grown-ups, they're cute to kids, and if they improve the dining experience, why not? (I am uncomfortable with using stickers as bribery/rewards for healthy eating, though; I think it naturally casts those foods as something to be endured.)

Amen, Katie! Most parents I talk to say, "well I don't want them to go hungry, they just won't eat anything else!" Well I can say from experience that yes they will! Although my son would rather eat veggies than almost anything, I've nannied quite a few through the years and if I can get spoiled rich kids to eat healthy, at least while they're in my care, then parents can get their kids to eat healthy! The question you just have to ask yourself is 'who's the parent?' Yes we need go educate our children about healthy foods and why it's important, and we definitely need to model good nutrition, but it all comes down to the fact that we're the parents and ultimately it's our decision and our responsibility to get them to eat right.

I think the ubiquitous cartoon characters decorating most unhealthy food gives said food an unfair advantage -- my kids seem instantly attracted to anything cartoon-ish even if they've never seen the cartoon before (they think of it as being "for kids").

So, I wouldn't think there's be anything wrong with combating that appeal with a little counter-cartooning on healthy food. It might make it harder for parents, though, in that we'd have to distinguish between the "good" cartoon-advertised food and the "bad" ;-) Don't have to be licensed characters, by the way, I think anything decorated in a kid-like way would help convince the children that this particular food is "for kids."

LOL... my toddler also much prefers broccoli to chicken (or any other meat). I've been known to use apples or bananas as a bribe.

We certainly eat some sweets too, but in much better moderation than I did as a child.

This is a good idea indeed. Putting cartoon characters on the label of the food for children will surely compel them o eat nutritious food. Junk food is so hard to combat but it may be lessen with this kind of idea.

We can't force our children to eat vegetables and other healthy food but we can compel them to take great tasting vitamins. These are flavored vitamins that will give them a healthy body. With the present technology, vitamins can now be in a form of chocolates and berries and more.

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