Could a cartoon character like Sesame Street's Elmo make children healthier? A new report suggests that cartoon stickers could encourage children, who usually avoid healthy items, to eat fruits and vegetables.
Researchers conducted a study with 208 elementary school children aged 8 to 11. The project gave the students an option of either apples and/or cookies. They found that the kids chose the apples over the cookies if a cartoon sticker was slapped onto the apple.
For one week during lunch, these children were given that option. On some days, the snacks were specially marked, while on other days they were not. When the snacks were not branded with a sticker, 91 percent of the kids took the cookie. When an Elmo sticker was applied on an apple, more than one-third took the apple.
The findings were published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. David Just, co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program, who worked on the study, encouraged those who are trying to sell healthier foods to be just as smart as those selling junk food. “The message should be: fight fire with fire.”
It has been known for quite some time that majority of marketing for fruits and vegetables do not include cartoon characters and other kid-friendly material. The total sum of non-nutritious food advertising trumps those offering healthier alternatives.
The American Psychological Association (APA) reported that there was a strong correlation between enhanced advertising for non-nutritious food and childhood obesity rates.
“Most children under age 6 cannot distinguish between programming and advertising and children under age 8 do not understand the persuasive intent of advertising,” the research study noted. “Advertising directed at children this young is by its very nature exploitative. Children have a remarkable ability to recall content from the ads to which they have been exposed.”
In November 2008, a study was published in the Journal of Law and Economics that found that banning fast food advertisement would reduce childhood obesity levels. If such a measure was implemented, the study found that the number of overweight children between the ages of 3 and 11 would drop by 18 percent, while overweight kids between 12 and 18 would be reduced by 14 percent.
“We have known for some time that childhood obesity has gripped our culture, but little empirical research has been done that identifies television advertising as a possible cause," said Shin-Yi Chou, the Frank L. Magee Distinguished Professor at Lehigh's College of Business and Economics, in a news release. "Hopefully, this line of research can lead to a serious discussion about the type of policies that can curb America's obesity epidemic."