Using trusted cartoon characters to sell food products to children can be a particularly devious form of marketing that may influence adult eating habits and obesity rates.
Little EC Zapping Through TV
It happens from time to time that I idly sit on my couch and zap through the available TV channels. Sooner or later I’ll come across one of those aimed at children, that practically do nothing but broadcast cartoons all day long.
Sometimes that gets me an enjoyable half hour with an old favorite of mine (Angry Beavers, anyone?), other cartoons I can’t even pretend to understand. If you can make sense of The Regular Show, please let me know. There must be a meaning in why a drunken clown and his equally drunken horse are vaporized by a demonic face that apparently escaped from an 80s video game that clearly eludes me.
Anyhow, all these channels are of course financed by advertising and more often than not, these commercials are neatly tied in with the show they go along with. When that means Thomas the Tank Engine is followed by a commercial for the Thomas the Tank Engine trike, then that at least is comparatively harmless.
Ok, if you are the parent that has to say no to it and endure the wailing, not so much.
Food Habits Formed By Cartoons
The reason why Thomas is used to sell the trike is precisely the same as why celebrities are being used to sell products to adults: it works, because we see them as trustworthy authority figures. And if it works this well on more or less rational adults, it works even better with children, as they have a much harder time differentiating between “content” and “commercial.”
As hinted above, if these tie-ins stay with toys and such, all may be more or less well. A child sooner or later outgrows his glowing passion for a Bob the Builder trike and when he turns into an adult, Bob the Builder will be reduced to all but a warm, fuzzy childhood memory.
On the other hand, what if Bob advertises food, especially food high in calories? Then not only is what children see as a credible personality used to gain trust, we also are in the area of influencing long-term habits that carry over into adult life: our specific likes and dislikes in food.
If you, for example, grew up in Germany like me, you may have a much stronger preference for sour tastes than if you spent your childhood in the US. And if you grew up with Fred Flintstone, Scooby Doo, the Teletubbies et al. selling you their great, sweet cereals and candy bars or Happy Meals and
coerced coaxed your parents into buying them, that too makes a difference (PDF).
Obesity Starts In Childhood
If we want to do something against ever climbing obesity rates, we have to influence eating habits exactly at that same most impressionable point of life that some food companies learnt to exploit so marvelously. Or we at least have to keep those more unsavoury influencers under more control.
Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to happen. When the U.S. government in 2011 attempted putting together entirely voluntary principles for food industry self-regulation, the food industry was up in arms. After much lobbying, the U.S. Congress eventually blocked the proposal, and to this day there is no real regulation for marketing food to children.
That makes governmental obesity prevention programs look rather half-hearted and leaves parents pretty much to their own devices when trying to explain what it means that Fred Flintstone sold out.
Picture courtesy of Daniel Oines.