Fat Cartoon Characters May Influence Kids To Eat More; Adults Have Similar Influences, Too

Homer Simpson
Watching Winnie the Pooh or Homer Simpson might make your kids more likely to indulge in cookies afterwards. Mohamed El Kady, CC BY 2.0

You may not have thought that seemingly innocent characters like Winnie the Pooh or Homer Simpson were fueling America’s obesity epidemic, but a new study claims that witnessing plump cartoon characters triggers overeating in children.

The study was conducted at Colorado State University, and showed that kids who were exposed to chubby cartoon characters — from TV shows like Peppa Pig to McDonald’s Grimace, or even Sesame Street’s Big Bird — were more likely to eat indulgently compared to children who watched healthier characters.

“They have a tendency to eat almost twice as much indulgent food as kids who are exposed to perceived healthier looking cartoon characters or no characters at all,” Margaret Campbell, marketing professor at Colorado State University’s Leeds School of Business and lead author of the study, said in the press release.

In the study, researchers gathered 300 participants all between the ages of 6 and 14. They exposed the kids to both normal weight and overweight cartoon characters, then gave them access to “high energy, low-nutrient food,” the authors wrote. When exposed to fat cartoon characters, the kids ate more.

Of course, filtering your children’s TV experience based on the weights of cartoon characters may be taking it a bit far. The influences behind childhood obesity are wide and varied, and many are nuanced. What the study does show, however, is that one of the best ways to fight these fractured influences is to reinforce healthy thinking and information in children. The researchers found that the participants were less likely to eat junk food after they had practiced previously learned health knowledge in a test.

“This is key information we should continue to explore,” Campbell said in the press release. “Kids don’t necessarily draw upon previous knowledge when they’re making decisions. But perhaps if we’re able to help trigger their health knowledge with a quiz just as they’re about to select lunch at school, for instance, they’ll choose the more nutritious foods.”

Interestingly, a 2011 study also conducted by Campbell and her team at the University of Colorado found that the average adult consumer is more likely to indulge in junk food after they see an overweight person. Being around overweight or obese friends could also spur people to eat more than they normally would, the study found. The only way to counteract that is to remind yourself of your health goals.

“Because research like this is new — looking at kids and stereotyping particularly of cartoon characters — we weren’t sure whether kids would be aware of bodyweight norms,” Campbell said. “But surprisingly, they apply typically human standards to cartoon creatures — creatures for which there isn’t a real baseline.”

Their conclusion? Perhaps fast food restaurants, TV shows, and marketers should be a bit more cognizant about their far-reaching influence when it comes to health. Reminding kids to be active, athletic, and healthy when it comes to choosing food can work to counteract the negative influences out there. And perhaps it’s time to bring back the era of Popeye's spinach-eating prowess.

Source: Campbell M, Manning K, Leonard B, Manning H. Kids, cartoons, and cookies: Stereotype priming effects on children’s food consumption. Journal of Consumer Psychology. 2015.

Loading...
Join the Discussion