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The N-Word in the Supermarket

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If you have ever strolled through a supermarket with a 4-year-old, you probably have seen evidence that familiar cartoon characters help attract children to food products. Even if you never go shopping with preschoolers, you might surmise that food companies spend $200 million or so on character licensing and related promotional efforts each year because they expect some sort of payoff. Researchers at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity nevertheless decided an experiment was necessary to reassure cereal, cookie, and ice cream manufacturers that they are not wasting their money when they purchase the right to stick Dora the Explorer or Scooby Doo on their packages.

In the study, reported today on the website of the journal Pediatrics, 40 4-to-6-year-olds sampled "3 pairs of identical foods (graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and carrots) presented in packages either with or without a popular cartoon character." When asked which graham cracker they would choose in the future, 88 percent of the kids pointed to the one in the package with a sticker showing a cartoon character (Shrek, Scooby Doo, or Dora the Explorer); the corresponding figure was 85 percent for gummy snacks and 73 percent for carrots. The subjects were also inclined to say the cartoon-associated products tasted better, although the differences were small (and essentially nonexistent in the case of carrots). Predictably, the researchers conclude that their findings demonstrate the need to censor food promotion:

Our results provide evidence that licensed characters can influence children's eating habits negatively by increasing positive taste perceptions and preferences for junk foods….Our findings suggest that the use of licensed characters on junk food packaging should be restricted. More than advocating the use of licensed characters for healthy foods, our findings point to the need to regulate and curtail the use of this marketing approach for high-energy, low-nutrient products.

In truth, however, the study does not provide any evidence that "licensed characters can influence children's eating habits negatively." Since it was limited to comparisons between otherwise identical products, it suggests that Dora the Explorer is an asset in distinguishing your brand of graham crackers or gummy fruit snacks from the other guy's. It does not address, let alone answer, the question of how much blame, if any, Dora deserves for the fact that kids generally prefer graham crackers and gummy fruit snacks to carrots. It is entirely possible that cartoon characters are effective tools in brand competition (and therefore worth the money that companies invest in them) yet have no discernible impact on the overall quality of children's diets.

Leaving that issue aside, the case for censoring food marketing to protect children is still missing a crucial link. "What is unique about children at this age," a pediatrician tells HealthDay, "is that although they have fairly advanced cognitive skills and short-term and long-term memory in place, they do not have the ability to be skeptical about the messages they are receiving." If only we could assign adults to protect children from the impact of these nefarious messages, either by teaching them to be skeptical or by guiding their consumption. It's too bad that so many 5-year-olds have unsupervised use of cars and credit cards, roaming supermarkets freely and filling their carts with unhealthy, tooth-rotting, obesity-promoting crap.

The study's authors have heard of parents, but they portray them as helpless against the onslaught of green ogres and brown Great Danes. "Parents can't do a whole lot," the lead researcher tells ABC News. "They have to go to the grocery store, and they have to shop." Evidently, they also have to buy every cartoon-covered product their children demand.

I do the grocery shopping for my family, and I am often accompanied by our two younger daughters, who are 4 and 7. They do notice cartoon characters on packages and sometimes ask me to buy those products. But turning down such requests does not rank very high on the list of parental challenges, and it never ceases to amaze me that food nannies can pretend it does with a straight face.