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by intern Khalilah Ramdene

A recent study by the Rudd Center at Yale University found that children prefer foods branded with cartoon characters, often citing those foods as better tasting then their unbranded counterparts. Licensed cartoon characters are often used to advertise unhealthy foods to children, suggesting that this direct marketing may be a primary contributor to the child obesity epidemic.

The study sampled 40 children in New Haven, Connecticut between ages four and six. The children were provided with three pairs of identical food, some packaged with a cartoon character (Scooby Doo, Dora, and Shrek) and some without. The study found that children were more likely to choose a food with a familiar branded image, which suggests that advertising and marketing has a strong influence over the food choices children make. Aside from choosing foods branded with recognizable cartoon characters the participants claimed the food tasted better. Cartoon characters are more often used to sell the unhealthy foods (foods high in fat, sugar and/or sodium) that are linked to the child obesity epidemic.

Advertising unhealthy food directly to children has its precedent in the McDonald Happy Meal model. Along with a third of a day’s worth of calories, and two days worth of sugar, children receive a toy in their Happy Meal, usually a character associated with new movie releases or hit television shows. In 2003, the sale of Happy Meals reached $3.4 billion and made up 20 percent of McDonalds sale. Earlier this week, The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a statement threatening to sue McDonalds for their “unfair and deceptive marketing” to children. CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner states, “McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children’s developmental immaturity—all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health. It’s a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction.”