Heroic Paw Patrol pups and fun-loving Trix Rabbit are influencing children's preferences for unhealthy foods

Cartoon characters in food ads sway kids toward unhealthy options, new research finds

From goofy SpongeBob SquarePants to cackling Count Chocula, new research points the finger at the lovable cartoon characters as supervillains in enticing kids to choose junk foods. 

In the first Canadian study of its kind, University of Ottawa researchers examined whether cartoon characters used in food marketing influenced children’s food preferences, and teased out whether the type of character made a difference. 

“We know that children are particularly vulnerable to the cute cartoon animals and superheroes that advertisers use to entice kids to pester their parents to buy food products,” says Dr. Monique Potvin Kent, associate professor at the University of Ottawa and lead author of the study. “This study demonstrates the impact this marketing technique has on kids, and it’s not good news.”

Researchers showed food ads to 1,341 Canadian kids, aged nine to 12, and measured their intentions to eat, buy or pester their parents for it. They analyzed the impact on kids of two types of cartoon characters used to promote food products: licensed cartoon characters from popular media, such as Disney princesses, and spokes characters developed by food and beverage companies, such as Lucky the Leprechaun from Lucky Charms.

While spokes characters had the greatest influence, the most striking finding was the sway all characters had over kids, leading researchers to recommend the government restrict all characters in food advertising to children.

“There’s a direct link between the cartoons in food marketing directed at kids and the lure of the unhealthy foods that can cause long-term health issues. This needs to stop to protect the health of Canadian children,” Potvin Kent says. 

Funded by Heart & Stroke, the research is particularly relevant now, as Health Canada announced on April 25th public consultations that will inform the development of regulations by winter 2024. These regulations will protect kids from unhealthy food and beverage marketing. Heart & Stroke welcomed these consultations and encourages the government to announce new rules as soon as possible.

“We are happy to see Health Canada is moving forward and it is important that strong and comprehensive regulations be put in place as quickly as possible. Our kids are worth it,” said Doug Roth, CEO, Heart & Stroke.

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Natalie Lian