Objective: To investigate whether licensed media spokescharacters on food packaging and nutrition cues affect young children's taste assessment of products.
Design: In this experimental study, children viewed 1 of 4 professionally created cereal boxes and tasted a "new" cereal. Manipulations included presence or absence of licensed cartoon spokescharacters on the box and healthy or sugary cereal name.
Setting: Shopping center in a large northeastern city in December 2007.
Participants: Eighty children (mean [SD] age, 5.6 [0.96] years; 53% girls) and their parents or guardians.
Main exposure: Licensed cartoon characters and nutrition cues in the cereal name.
Outcome measures: Children rated the cereal's taste on a 5-point smiley face scale (1, really do not like; 5, really like).
Results: Children who saw a popular media character on the box reported liking the cereal more (mean [SD], 4.70 [0.86]) than those who viewed a box with no character on it (4.16 [1.24]). Those who were told the cereal was named Healthy Bits liked the taste more (mean [SD], 4.65 [0.84]) than children who were told it was named Sugar Bits (4.22 [1.27]). Character presence was particularly influential on taste assessments for participants who were told the cereal was named Sugar Bits.
Conclusions: The use of media characters on food packaging affects children's subjective taste assessment. Messages encouraging healthy eating may resonate with young children, but the presence of licensed characters on packaging potentially overrides children's assessments of nutritional merit.