As reported in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania put the same organic cereal in four different boxes, two showing penguins from the movie Happy Feet and two without, then sat back and let the pint-sized connoisseurs, ages 4 through 6, do their thing.
"What struck us," said the study's lead scientist, Matthew Lapierre, in an interview with TIME's, Healthland, "was that when you just slapped a character on the box, it changed the way kids tasted the cereal. We were expecting an effect, but we just didn't think it would be that profound an effect."
I'm not sure the ad agencies representing General Mills, Kellogg's and Quaker Oats would have been as surprised.
Pediatrician and child obesity specialist, Dr. Joanna Dolgoff reported on her blog, that "cereal companies spend nearly $156 million annually on kid-friendly TV commercials for kids." Dolgoff also sited a study from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity which found that, "The least healthy breakfast cereals are the most aggressively marketed cereals." Any parent who has attempted to navigate a cereal aisle with kids in tow can attest to the power of marketing and the tenacity of a child under its spell.
Lapierre told Healthland, "When children see a character they like on a product, what comes to mind is how much they like that character, and it carries over into their product assessment ... Their ability to stop and think gets overwhelmed. Children have a difficult time overriding and using cognition to override that [emotional] response."
As of this writing, Lucky Charms cereal (You know, the one with the dancing Leprechaun?) is currently ranked as the top selling breakfast cereal for kids on Amazon's Best Selling Cereal website. Luck of the Irish or smart like a fox?
Since the cereal industry reportedly earned revenues of $10 billion dollars in 2009, it turns out the Leprechaun wasn't kidding about that pot of gold.
On the bright side, cereal companies aren't the only ones who have the ability to manipulate kid's taste buds, and it's possible that the power might be used for good.
Healthland reported that a 2005 study by researchers at the Sesame Workshop asked preschool kids to choose between a chocolate bar and some really fresh broccoli. Not surprisingly, 78% took the chocolate bar and 22% opted for the veggies. However, when the children were offered broccoli adorned with an Elmo sticker or a chocolate bar decorated with an unfamiliar character a remarkable 50% of the kids chose the broccoli while 50% stayed with the candy. The number of smug parents swelled as well.
Imagine what might happen if farmers slapped Phineas and Ferb stickers on string beans! Asparagus! Squash! If Chiquita tattooed Sponge Bob onto bananas or Sunkist featured Scooby Doo? What if agricultural subsidies paid for MTV-style produce advertising during children's televised programming?
Would kids be screaming in the produce aisles? Throwing tantrums for tomatoes embellished with Shrek? They put those other stickers on anyway ... just thinking out loud here.
In the meantime, parents might want to start decorating the contents of their own fruit bowls and putting cartoon stickers on items in the veggie drawer. Presto! A DIY research study. Good luck and be sure to report your findings here.