CBS Food Police Go After 'Cereal Offenders,' Fret Over Cartoon Characters 'Targeting' Kids

On Tuesday's CBS Early Show, contributor Taryn Winter Brill touted a new University of Pennsylvania study on the influence of breakfast cereal cartoon characters on children: "Previous research has shown how these images influence children's selections, but now a new study reveals they also influence how the kids think the cereal actually tastes."

In the report that followed, Brill described how marketing campaigns "target" kids to sell unhealthy sugary cereals: "Breakfast cereal is a $10 billion a year business and competition is fierce...especially among children's cereal....They target kids with cartoon characters, in commercials and on boxes, that practically reach from store shelves to grab your kid's attention." The headline on screen during the segment read: "Cereal Offenders; Cartoon Images Affect Kids' Taste Perception."

During the report, a sound bite was featured of Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, who declared: "The cereal manufacturers spend more than $150 million a year just targeting kids." On its website, the Rudd Center emphasizes the importance of using broad public policy to force people to change their eating habits:

Public policy, such as local, state or federal legislation, is an efficient way to help the greatest number of people make positive changes in their lives. Rather than focusing on changing people’s behavior one person at a time, effective public policy makes positive changes in the environments in which we live. Practicing more healthful behavior becomes the "optimal default" — that is, choosing a more healthful behavior becomes easier, if not automatic.  

In another sound bite in Brill's Early Show report, Brownell lamented how cereal characters like Frosted Flakes' 'Tony the Tiger,' "go back decades and persist today....Kids recognize them very early in life and it has an impact on what they choose to eat."

Brill explained findings of the UPENN study: "It turns out that those loveable creatures make kids think their cereal tastes better....In a recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania, children were asked to use smiley faces to rate the taste of cereal. Researchers found children awarded more smiley faces to the cereal from boxes with cartoon contact characters than the ones without, even though the cereal itself was the same."

At the end of her report, Brill concluded: "Children's food choices are influenced as much by the characters they see as by the taste in their mouths....experts we spoke with say most of the cereals featuring cartoon characters are, in fact, the least healthy ones."


Here is a full transcript of the March 15 segment:

8:08AM ET TEASE:

ERICA HILL: Just ahead here on the Early Show, we are going cereal shopping to show you how cartoon characters really do affect your children's choices on what they eat. And, boy, are those characters doing a good job winning over your kids.

8:11AM ET SEGMENT:

HILL: In this morning's 'Health Watch,' cartoon characters and cereal. Some estimates say the average preschooler sees more than 500 breakfast cereal commercials a year and there are plenty of characters in those ads, characters which carry a lot of clout. As Early Show contributor Taryn Winter Brill found out, or as any parent knows when they go down the cereal aisle in the supermarket.

TARYN WINTER BRILL: Exactly. Good morning to you, Erica. Well, any parent who's walked down the cereal aisle with kids knows the magical allure of cartoon characters on boxes. Previous research has shown how these images influence children's selections, but now a new study reveals they also influence how the kids think the cereal actually tastes.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Cereal Offenders; Cartoon Images Affect Kids' Taste Perception]

Breakfast cereal is a $10 billion a year business and competition is fierce.

TONY THE TIGER: They're great!

BRILL: Especially among children's cereal.

KELLY BROWNELL [DIRECTOR, RUDD CTR. FOR FOOD POLICY & OBESITY]: The cereal manufacturers spend more than $150 million a year just targeting kids.

BRILL: They target kids with cartoon characters, in commercials and on boxes, that practically reach from store shelves to grab your kid's attention. It's an age old tradition. Tony the Tiger made his debut in the 1950s.

TONY THE TIGER: They're great!

BROWNELL: Characters go back decades and persist today. They're very important icons. Kids recognize them very early in life and it has an impact on what they choose to eat.

BRILL: Not just what they choose to eat, but how they think the cereal tastes. It turns out that those loveable creatures make kids think their cereal tastes better.

MATT LAPIERRE [UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA RESEARCHER]: When a character was on the box, children said that they enjoyed the product more.

BRILL: In a recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania, children were asked to use smiley faces to rate the taste of cereal. Researchers found children awarded more smiley faces to the cereal from boxes with cartoon contact characters than the ones without, even though the cereal itself was the same. I want you to scream if you like to eat cereal.

[CHILDREN SCREAMING]

We rounded up six young cereal lovers to see if we could get similar results in an unscientific taste test. We put the same common breakfast cereal into two containers, one plain, the other decorated with popular cartoon characters. And we let the kids slurp and crunch away. So I want to know which cereal you liked better. If you liked this cereal better, raise your hand. One, two, three, four, five. Five out of six liked the one with the cartoon character. But listen to why. You raised your hand that you liked this one better. Why?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Because it's more sweeter.

BRILL: Why did you like this one better?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL B: Because it was sweeter.

BRILL: Remember, they were comparing the exact same cereal. We repeated the experiment with two more cereals, healthy or sugary, it didn't seem to matter.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: It tasted better.

BRILL: It tasted better. What mattered most was the container the cereal came from.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY B: It's my favorite TV show stickers on it and it looks more crunchy.

BRILL: Unscientific or not, the results were the same. Children's food choices are influenced as much by the characters they see as by the taste in their mouths. Those kids were so cute, I love that hat. Incidently, experts we spoke with say most of the cereals featuring cartoon characters are, in fact, the least healthy ones. The experts say the reason for that is kids tend to overeat sugary cereals specifically, Erica, sending mom and dad back to the store for more sugary cereals.

HILL: How about that? And let me tell you, you turn and you read the box in the aisle, which is really, you know, the onus is on us as parents to do that. It's obvious that most of these are the least healthy.

BRILL: Yeah.

HILL: They looked, though, too, at certain words, 'healthy' and 'sugar,' and how did kids react to those words? I can guess.

BRILL: Right, this was fascinating. Because believe it or not, the cereal didn't change. That remained the same. What changed only was the name on the cereal boxes. The kids were introduced to two cereals, one was called 'Healthy Bits' and one was called 'Sugary Bits.' And when they asked the kids which they liked better, of the Healthy Bits or the Sugary Bits, without cartoon characters, overwhelmingly they liked the Healthy Bits.

HILL: Really?

BRILL: Yeah, isn't that shocking. However, then they introduced the cartoon characters on to the sugary bits and the response changes dramatically. The kids all of the sudden liked the sugar cereal better, saying that the cartoon characters take precedence over the name of the cereal.

HILL: So we know the cartoon characters carry weight, I wouldn't have thought that the word 'healthy' would carry weight over 'sugar.'

BRILL: Right. And the researchers were surprised by this, too. They thought immediately they're going to go to the sugar cereals, right. But instead, they went to healthy cereals. And they say that I guess nowadays children are told commonly stay away from sugar, 'Sugar is bad, you want to go to the healthy cereals.'

And I actually brought some cereals to show you that the names of the cereals over the years have changed because cereal marketers have sort of picked up on this trend. So take a look at what we have in front of us. Corn Pops, believe it or not, Erica, used to go by Sugar Corn Pops. There's the original logo. Golden Crisp, that originally went by Super Sugar Crisp. Gosh, I haven't seen these boxes in a long time. Frosted Flakes, my favorite of all, used to go by Sugar Frosted Flakes. And finally, Honey Smacks, can you take a guess, before it comes up?

HILL: I'm going Sugar Smacks.

BRILL: Sugar Smacks. And Sugar Smacks I recognize, but ver the years, they just – they eliminated the word 'sugar,' tapping into this idea that sugar is bad.

HILL: Funny how that changes. You could also, sort of, go totally rogue, if you will – which some parents I know, may have been know to do – buy one box of a certain cereal and then you just keep putting in the bag of the healthier one in the box. They don't always notice.

BRILL: Unscientific experiment in and of itself.

HILL: Yeah. This is really great, though. Great information. And eye-opening for a lot of parents. Taryn, thanks.    

BRILL: Thanks, Erica.

— Kyle Drennen is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC