Would you let a clown influence what brand of car you buy? How about choosing your household appliances based on the advice of a cartoon bird or tiger?
Probably not. But young people in your family will likely let cartoons and mascots influence where your family eats out or what cereal you buy – indeed, many of your food purchases. Those choices and many others like them will, in turn, affect your family’s diet and its long-term health.
Unlike major household purchases like cars and appliances, children often play a large role in influencing what their families eat. Children are exposed to high levels of unhealthy food advertising in media like television and digital media and in settings where they live and play. The result of this tide of unhealthy food marketing to kids is poor diets for Canadians, and potentially serious health consequences for years to come – both for individual Canadians and for our health system.
A new study just completed by my team at the University of Ottawa shows that children’s preferred food choices are greatly influenced by food manufacturers and restaurant chain marketing. Our research found advertising messages using cute cartoon characters and superheroes to market unhealthy food choices to kids sway children’s choices.
Our new study evaluated the role product mascots have on Canadian pre-teens and how they influence their intention to eat or buy products themselves or to pester their parents to do so. This is a key group, since ultra-processed food consumption is highest in children aged nine to 13, making up nearly 60 percent of calories in their diets.
To measure the effect of such child-targeted marketing, more than 1,300 Canadian kids aged nine to 12, with the consent of their parents, took part in the study, which was funded by Heart & Stroke. Kids were shown ads for foods featuring licensed cartoon characters from popular media, such as Disney princesses, and spokes characters developed by food and beverage companies, such as Lucky the Leprechaun from Lucky Charms. They were shown ads directed at kids and adult-targeted ads. Kids were also exposed to ads with brands but no food product.
Children’s food preferences, intent to purchase the product, and intent to pester their parents to purchase the product were then measured. The results showed that children clearly preferred advertising using characters, particularly cartoon-type “spokes characters” as product mascots. The use of these characters in advertising had a strong overall impact on children’s food preferences, purchase intent, and desire to pester parents to purchase them. They also preferred products that targeted children, with characters, games, and fun designs.
The study provides timely evidence to support a clear need for federal government action. It’s time to ban the use of cartoon characters to advertise unhealthy foods to children.
Health Canada had been consulting on new restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to Canadian children. However, the proposed new regulations lack important elements because they are limited to just TV and digital advertising. They ignore the many other means of marketing frequently used: in-store and point-of-purchase displays, outdoor media (billboards, signage) including around schools, product packaging, as well as the use of mascots and cartoon characters in all of the above, which the study shows are so influential.
This new study adds to the weight of evidence that makes it clear that comprehensive restrictions on unhealthy food marketing to kids are necessary for the new rules to be effective.
Comprehensive restrictions have already happened elsewhere. In Chile, the use of cartoon characters has been banned to market products to children, including on packaging – so the look of some well-known cereals and other products is now very different.
And these are policies that Canadians want — restrictions on food marketing to kids are supported by more than 70 percent of Canadians, according to a recent survey.
It’s time for Health Canada to revise its initial policy approach and ensure new regulations are much more comprehensive in scope to address the reality of today’s extensive and unhealthy food and beverage marketing to kids. The banning of cartoon characters and mascots needs to be included in such regulations.
As a famous cartoon character once said, “That’s all folks.”
Monique Potvin Kent is an epidemiologist.