Food and entertainment companies are using captivating and lucrative cartoon characters like Tony the Tiger to market unhealthy food products to children, a Virginia Tech researcher found.

“These companies have the resources and power to help children eat healthy if they reformulate their products associated with these mascots and media characters to reduce the sugar, salt, and fat,” said Vivica Kraak, an assistant professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the  College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

In a paper recently published in Obesity Reviews, Kraak, who is a Fralin Life Science Institute-affiliated faculty member, evaluated corporate accountability of food and beverage manufacturers by assessing whether companies improved the nutritional value of their products that use brand mascots and media-character branding as recommended by government organizations, expert advisory groups, and the World Health Organization.

The study identified food and beverage categories of concern including confectionary, children's meals, ready-to-eat cereals, sweet and savory snacks, desserts, and sugar-sweetened beverages that many companies market to children using brand mascots and licensed media characters.

In a companion paper also published in Obesity Reviews, Kraak and a colleague at Duke University conducted a systematic evidence review that found children develop strong parasocial connections — emotional connections to nonhuman entities — to brand mascots and media characters, and demonstrated the formidable influence these figures have on their food preferences, choices and diet quality.

“Using cartoon brand mascots and media characters is a very powerful form of marketing to children and their families,” she said. “Parents feed their children the same unhealthy food that companies marketed to them when they were small.”

The study calls for holding industry and government accountable for improving the food marketing landscape for children. By aligning the use of lucrative brand mascots and media characters to promote foods that meet the nutritional guidelines recommended by public health experts and the federal government, companies can contribute to reducing childhood obesity rates.

Kraak recommends in the paper that the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative — an industry self-regulatory program with 17 participating companies — amend their principles to align their nutrition guidelines for using brand mascots licensed media characters for on-packing, toys and premiums, and merchandising, which are currently exempted from their pledges.

She also recommends that children’s entertainment companies should join the initiative and adopt their nutrition guidelines or other expert nutrition standards, such as those adopted by the Walt Disney Company, for licensing their media characters.

A few companies are already on board to adopt best practices for using brand mascots and media characters to promote healthy food options.

The Sesame Workshop, which owns the media characters Cookie Monster, Elmo, and Super WHY! characters, announced in 2014 that fruit and vegetable companies could use their media characters royalty free through 2016 through a partnership with the Produce Marketing Association’s program called eat brighter!  The program has proven so successful that the Sesame Workshop has approved an extension of the use of their media characters through 2018.  

Since 2014, an additional 30 companies have signed on for the initiative that brands healthy products with Sesame characters, and an additional 30 companies have since reported that they’re on board supplying fresh produce in market. Nearly 60 companies, representing more than 130 commodities, have signed onto the movement with more than 30,000 retail stores accepting eat brighter!-branded product, according to the Produce Marketing Association.

It’s a positive trend that Kraak recommends other entertainment companies, including Nickelodeon, DreamWorks Animation, and Warner Brothers Entertainment follow.

Kraak believes that future research could test a broader, more diverse selection of cartoon brand mascots and media characters to examine how these influence children’s trust, recall, and product or brand recognition, taste and snack preferences, purchase requests, and food choices.

“The steps toward healthier eating and against obesity start with influencing food and beverage choices from a young age,” she said. “The fact that Sesame Workshop is allowing produce companies to use their beloved media characters including the Cookie Monster and Ernie and Bert, is a great initiative to market fruits and vegetables in a way that is fun and exciting for children.”

Research for both studies was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research program.



Written by Amy Loeffler.
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