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Portly Cartoon Characters Send Wrong Signal to Kids

Portly Cartoon Characters Send Wrong Signal to Kids

A telling new study discovers children have poor eating habits after they watch overweight cartoon characters.

However, if they can be reminded of healthy behaviors before they view the hefty models, they may chose a better option.

In a first-of-its-kind study, University of Colorado Boulder researchers found that children consume more low-nutrition, high-calorie food such as cookies and candy after observing plump cartoon models.

Investigators believe the findings show that kids are responsive to the apparent body weight of cartoon characters like the aptly named Grimace, a rotund, milkshake-loving creature created by McDonald’s restaurant in the 1970s.

Children tend to perceive ovoid, or egg-shaped, characters as overweight even though the creatures are imaginary, found the study.

“Because research like this is new — looking at kids and stereotyping particularly of cartoon characters — we weren’t sure whether kids would be aware of bodyweight norms,” said Margaret C. Campbell, Ph.D.,lead author of the study.

“But surprisingly, they apply typically human standards to cartoon creatures — creatures for which there isn’t a real baseline.”

In addition, seeing ovoid cartoon characters can influence children to eat more unhealthy food, according to the study.

“They have a tendency to eat almost twice as much indulgent food as kids who are exposed to perceived healthier looking cartoon characters or no characters at all,” said Campbell.

Not all is negative, however, as a child’s knowledge of healthy behavior can be used to limit over-indulgence.

For example, the inclination to eat more junk food was curtailed when kids in the study first had the opportunity to summon their previously learned health knowledge.

That is, before looking at the ovoid cartoon character and then taking a cookie taste-test, the children’s health knowledge was activated when they were asked to choose the healthiest option represented in six pairs of pictures and words. Examples are getting your sleep versus watching TV, soda versus milk and playing inside versus playing outside; and this activation led to lighter cookie consumption.

“This is key information we should continue to explore,” said Campbell. “Kids don’t necessarily draw upon previous knowledge when they’re making decisions. But perhaps if we’re able to help trigger their health knowledge with a quiz just as they’re about to select lunch at school, for instance, they’ll choose the more nutritious foods.”

The findings appear online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

For the study, researchers gathered information from over 300 participants in three age groups averaging eight, 12 and 13 years old. Investigators believe the findings have implications for marketers as well as parents.

The topic is timely as childhood obesity is reaching epidemic proportions while modern communication channels deliver encounters with cartoon characters in a variety of forms ranging from books to graphic novels, TV shows, video games, movies, and more.

“What I would like to see is companies being a lot more responsible with their own marketing choices,” said Campbell.

“I think it is important for parents to know they should think about the way they might be associating food with fun for kids — in the form of exposure to cartoon characters, for instance — as opposed to associating food with nutrition and the family structure.”

The Kellogg’s brand is an example of a company that changed the image of one of its cartoon characters in a responsible way, according to Campbell.

Several years ago, it revamped Tony the Tiger to be slimmer and more athletic, which may link the character with healthier eating ideas rather than linking to ideas of eating lots of sugary cereal, she said.

Source: University of Colorado, Boulder

Portly Cartoon Characters Send Wrong Signal to Kids

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Portly Cartoon Characters Send Wrong Signal to Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 14 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.