When Elmo Chooses Apples, Kids Choose Them Too
August 23, 2012

When Elmo Chooses Apples, Kids Choose Them Too

Connie K. Ho for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

At many elementary schools around the U.S., when the first bell rings, it´s a signal for snack time. Hungry kids will race to the snack bar and salivate at the various delicious choices before them. On the one hand, they could have a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie or they could choose to take a bite out of a crisp, refreshing apple. Many times, the kids will sway the way of the cookie. However, researchers from Cornell University recently discovered that branding healthier foods like fruit could actually lead to a boost in children´s nutrition.

In a study published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the scientists concluded that marketing programs used for junk foods could also be used to increase interest in eating healthier at school cafeterias.

“Nutritionists and school lunch planners can turn the tables on children´s poor eating habits by adopting the same ℠branding´ tactic used by junk food marketers,” explained Brian Wansink, an expert on the subtle cues that affect people´s eating habits and professor of marketing at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, in a prepared statement.

According Med Page Today, the study was conducted in seven upstate New York schools over a five-day period. 208 children between the ages of eight and 11 were given the opportunity to choose apples, cookies, or both in the study. Some days, there were generic apple and cookies; other days, the apples had stickers of Elmo, the popular Sesame Street cartoon character. When there weren´t any markings, 91 percent of the children would take a cookie and a little fewer than 25 percent would take an apple. With the Elmo sticker on the apple, 37 percent of children chose to eat the apple. The researchers concluded that stickers of popular cartoon characters on the fruit made more children want to eat the apples as opposed to the cookies.

"There are so many foods that are of poor nutritional quality and they are being marketed to children," Christina Roberto, a researcher of food choice at the Harvard School of Public Health, told Reuters Health.

"It's not a bad idea to create these positive associations, especially if you're struggling to get kids to eat healthy foods," added Roberto, who was not involved in the study.

In the past, mascots, super heroes, and other characters have been used by food marketers in promoting specific food brands like candy and sugary breakfast cereals.

"If we're trying to promote healthier foods, we need to be as smart as the companies that are selling the less-healthy foods," David Just, co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program, told Reuters Health. “The message should be: fight fire with fire."

The researchers believe that the study´s findings could pave the way for healthy eating. They believe that the Elmo brand significantly affected the children´s choices and could have a stronger pull than that of processed foods.

“Branding has tremendous potential to promote healthier eating. We tend to associate mascots and characters with junk food, but they can also be used to build excitement around healthy foods. This is a powerful lesson for fast food companies, food activists and people involved in school food service,” continued lead author Wansink in the statement.