Be Our Voice Blog

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Kids, Food, and TV Characters: What Advocates Can Do

Posted by: NICHQ

Healthcare professional advocates beware! Your patients not only see Cartoon Network, Nick Jr., and Disney Channel characters on TV and online, but also at grocery and convenience stores on food packaging.

The list of characters that can all be found in the aisles of supermarkets seems endless: Dora the Explorer, My Little Pony, Disney Princesses, Madagascar’s Penguins, Nemo, Super Mario, Veggie Tales, Alvin and the Chipmunks...And these particular characters are just the ones gracing packages in the fruit snack and cereal aisle.

But why should we care? What is the impact of putting cartoon characters on food packaging? Research has shown this marketing tactic leads to a lot of results, and most of them aren’t good for kids’ health.

First, kids as young as 2 or 3 can recognize and identify the characters1, and these character-covered boxes are often placed on lower shelves so it’s easy for kids to notice these food items (and to beg mom and dad to buy them). Second, when they see character-covered boxes, many kids automatically prefer these foods over and above the same foods marketed without the characters. 1 In one prominent study, researchers gave children three pairs of identical foods, and within each pair there was one package with TV characters on it. Guess which foods 50-55% of the children thought tasted better? You guessed it: the ones with recognizable characters on the packaging.1

Young children can’t understand the persuasive intent of advertising, and they can’t think critically about marketing messages. Kids see their favorite characters on food packaging and automatically equate the food with being good and “cool.” The food industry knows this all too well, and they also know that children are big influences on their parents’ wallets.

The food industry has repeatedly fought regulation of advertising aimed at kids, sometimes defending this kind of marketing as a First Amendment right. But a recent article in Health Affairs argued that case law history shows the First Amendment does not offer protection to “inherently misleading” commercial speech, that all commercial speech is “inherently misleading” to children who can’t understand its messages, and that it can be regulated by government.2 

However, currently, there is little regulation of this massive industry. Food marketing to kids is big business:  $1.6 billion is spent per year, much of it on TV commercials.3 Kids see 11 ads for every hour of TV watched, and more than 80% of ads in children’s programs are for fast food or snacks.4 Many of the foods advertised—and many of the packaged in character-covered boxes— are processed foods high in fat, sugar, and salt. And as any healthcare professional can tell you, foods like these contribute to childhood obesity.

So what can healthcare professional advocates do? In the office, talking with families about media literacy and screen time is a good starting point. At a practice-wide level, TV’s viewable in waiting rooms can show DVDs instead of TV stations to reduce exposure to food commercials. Community advocacy could involve urging grocery stores to practice responsible marketing, such as not putting junk food at kids’ eye level and keeping healthy foods in the checkout aisles instead of candy. 

Advocacy on a broader level could yield changes in how marketing practices are used, perhaps to market healthier foods instead of junk food. In a previous Be Our Voice blog post, we explored a few companies that have found novel, profitable ways to package and advertise healthy foods. Regulating, limiting, and eliminating unhealthy food marketing to kids is not easy, but it is necessary and possible, with the combined efforts of many advocates. After all, TV characters belong on TV—not on our food. 


  1. Roberto et al. “Influence of Licensed Characters on Children's Taste and Snack Preference.” Pediatrics. 2010; 126; 88-93.
  2. Graff et al. “Government Can Regulate Food Advertising To Children Because Cognitive Research Shows That It Is Inherently Misleading.” Health Affairs. February 2012 vol. 31 no. 2 392-398.
  3. Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “Food Marketing to Youth.”          
  4. Council on Communications and Media. “Children, Adolescents, Obesity, and the Media.” Pediatrics. 2011; 128; 201.

Further Advocacy Resources & Information

General Childhood Obesity  Healthy Kids 


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