A new report proves what we’ve known all along: Kids respond to marketing that includes their favorite characters. Such characters can be used—and should be used more—to increase their preference and consumption of fruits and vegetables.
“Children develop emotional bonds with brand mascots and media characters as if they were their personal friends,” according to an issue brief
from Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. “These relationships are based on the attractiveness of the brand mascots and media characters, and they can influence children’s food choices and diet.”
Of course, the issue brief, “The Use of Brand Mascots and Media Characters: Opportunities for Responsible Food Marketing to Children,” is taking on what some consider irresponsible marketing to kids, using characters to entice them to desire and eat less-nutritious foods. But here at PMA, we are thrilled to see such research because the eat brighter!™ movement
uses this maxim to market healthy fresh produce to kids and their families. We want Elmo and Big Bird to influence kids to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and as a member of the produce industry, you should, too.
As you know, eat brighter! is a collaborative effort among PMA, Sesame Workshop and the Partnership for a Healthier America that allows fresh fruit and vegetable marketers to use beloved Sesame Street characters royalty-free to appeal to kids 2-5 and their families. Companies simply get licensed through PMA and use the toolkit to make marketing happen. Suppliers already engaged are reporting sales increases, and retailers have told us these create excitement in the department.
The research looked at brand mascots, which are owned by food, beverage, and restaurant companies, and cartoon media characters, like the Sesame Street characters, which are owned by entertainment and media companies, in this case, Sesame Workshop. The issue brief notes that children learn about them through television, movies, the Internet, food packaging, merchandising, as well as their parents and peers.
The brief notes that Healthy Eating Research did a systematic review of 11 studies that examined the influence of media characters on children’s diet-related outcomes. They found that media characters can be used as a promising strategy to increase children’s preference, choice, and intake of fruits and vegetables compared to not using characters for branding. And the review showed that media characters can be used effectively to increase children’s fruit or vegetable intake if they are not concurrently used to promote cookies, candy, and chocolate products.
And when kids eat more produce in their early years, they develop preferences that will make them consumers for life. When consumers, including the preschool set, eat more produce, the whole produce supply chain benefits in greater sales. The produce industry has this great opportunity to be part of the solution to childhood obesity. Just as this issue brief calls out the “bad” side of character marketing on less-nutritious foods, it stresses that character marketing can create demand for more-nutritious foods, like fruits and vegetables.
So what does that say to the produce industry? Use the eat brighter! movement to sell more produce. Put Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and more on fresh produce targeting kids 2 to 5 years old. Put these characters in produce departments so that kids want the fresh produce that Elmo is promoting in mom’s shopping cart. PMA surveys of suppliers using the eat brighter! movement consistently show year-over-year sales increases of 2 percent, with some companies seeing higher bumps.
According to the issue brief: “Between 2006 and 2015, many national health organizations, expert committees, and government agencies repeatedly urged the food, beverage, restaurant, and entertainment industries to use brand mascots and media characters only to promote healthy food and beverage products to children.”
Those recommendations included: the U.S. Institute of Medicine, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, and an expert panel convened by Healthy Eating Research.
The issue brief notes: “While some progress has been made by food, beverage, restaurant, and entertainment companies to ensure that brand mascots and licensed media characters are used to promote healthier foods, beverages, and meals, significant opportunities for improvement still exist.”
The produce industry is sitting in the sweet spot of those opportunities for improvement.