Children say cereal tastes better when popular characters are on box

March 18, 2011

Children?s eating habits are influenced by the presence of popular licensed characters on the packaging, according to a recent study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Children’s eating habits are influenced by the presence of popular licensed characters on the packaging, according to a recent study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, tested whether the taste preferences of children 4 to 6 years old were affected by packaging. Eighty children viewed 1 of 4 professionally designed cereal boxes and were told that they were tasting a new cereal. The cereal boxes were imprinted with either a healthy or sugary cereal name (Healthy Bits/Sugar Bits) and either cartoon penguin characters from the movie Happy Feet or no characters. (The actual cereal chosen was Cascadian Farms Organic Kids Clifford Crunch, containing 6 g of sugar per serving.)

Each child was asked to rate the taste of the cereal on a 5-point smiley face scale, with 1 indicating “really do not like” and 5 indicating “really like.”

Almost all children reported liking the cereal, but those who saw the popular media characters on the box reported liking the cereal more than those who viewed a box without a character on it (mean taste assessment score, 4.70 vs 4.16, respectively).

The cereal name also had an effect on reported taste: Those who tasted the cereal named Healthy Bits reported enjoying the cereal more than children tasting the same cereal under the name Sugar Bits. Children receiving the cereal with the name Sugar Bits in a box with no characters on it were significantly less satisfied with the taste than those in the other 3 groups. “The findings suggest that the children’s less enthusiastic response to the word sugar in the name of the cereal was overridden by the presence of the characters on the box,” the researchers write.

No significant differences were found among children in the Healthy Bits group based on the presence or absence of characters on the box.

“The results of this experiment provide evidence that the use of popular characters on food products affects children’s assessment of taste,” the researchers conclude. “Messages encouraging healthy eating may resonate with young children, but the presence of licensed characters on packaging potentially overrides children's assessments of nutritional merit.”

Lapierre MA, Vaala SE, Linebarger DL. Influence of licensed spokescharacters and health cues on children’s ratings of cereal taste. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2011;165(3):229-234.