Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dora the Exploiter

“How about this one? It’s only got 12 grams of sugar.”

“Yeah, but look at the serving size. It says this little box has TWELVE servings. If you ate the whole box that’d be 144 grams of sugar.”

“But I won’t eat the whole box.”

“Over the next two days you would. Right?”


“Put it back.”

When I shop with my daughter we have a series of conversations, all very much like this one, throughout the store. All the way from Produce to Frozen and on to the checkout line we debate the merits of food item after food item. Most fail to pass parental muster.

It is getting downright annoying to Isabel. And frankly, it is getting annoying to me, too. Why is there high fructose corn syrup, added sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oil, or some combination of this terrible triumvirate in just about everything that looks good to Isabel?

A newly published study by Yale University doctoral student Christina Roberto of the Rudd Center might just explain some of Isabel’s preferences. For years companies have sought to link their products with celebrity spokespersons the buying public feels good about. They hope the good feeling will rub off on their product and sales will go up.

The strategy must work, because corporations continue to compete for the endorsements of major stars like Landon Donovan, Drew Brees, and Tiger Woods. Of course, sometimes the brand risks the taint of scandal if the endorser happens to get caught doing something the public finds distasteful. It becomes a little awkward when your cereal-box model is a serial adulterer.

Companies that make food designed to be eaten by kids don’t have to worry about the whiff of scandal if they choose animated beings as their spokescharacters. Dora the Explorer is unlikely to be caught in a three-way with Diego and Boots. So, as long as there are new three-, four, and five-year olds discovering Dora, Dora will be an effective endorser.

Roberto’s research asked kids to compare the taste of identical food served from non-identical bags. One bag was clear, the other had a cartoon character sticker on it. And, as chance would predict, about half the kids said the food in the stickered bag tasted better. But much more significant was the percentage of kids who said they would rather eat a snack from the stickered package. According to a report on CNN, “between 50 percent and 55 percent of the children said that the food with the sticker on it tasted better than the same food in the plain package. (The percentage varied with each food.) And between 73 percent and 85 percent selected the food in the character packaging as the one they'd prefer to eat as a snack.”

Roberto’s research seems to indicate that children can be easily manipulated into preferring one snack over another simply because of the packaging. This is not surprising news—we have all been children. We have all been duped by bright and shiny packages.

When I am at the store with Isabel and she pleads for a particular brand of yogurt or fruit roll or cereal, the package is often the main attractor to her—though she might deny this, (none of us wants to admit being manipulable.) But the plain fact is we are subject to manipulation and advertisers know this. And children are the most susceptible of all.

In recognition of this fact, Norway, Sweden, and Quebec Province have banned all advertising during children’s television programming. Over 30 other countries set limits on advertising during children’s shows. Some of the laws on the books specifically ban marketing using cartoon characters.

An analogous situation exists in medicine, where prescription drug makers have been advertising their drugs directly to consumers, who then do the adult version of crying and screaming and whining and wheedling to their doctors to get specific prescription drugs. Sales of heavily advertised drugs go up. And doctors are being put in the same position as parents who know what is best for their child but can’t always fend off the most persistent requests.

My response to studies like this shows me that I am certainly a liberal who believes the power of the government should be exercised in the public interest. Corporations are going under the heads of the parents and advertising directly to kids, who then whine and cry and scream and wheedle and do their own manipulating of their parents in the grocery store. And CERTAINLY it is the parents’ job to just say “no.” The government cannot take the place of parents. But just as certainly, parents and government can work as partners to improve the health of the nation’s kids.

Before Isabel and I go shopping again I will talk with her about Christina Roberto’s research and try to manipulate her. I want her to feel used by advertisers and resentful about it. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just go to Plan B, which is to shop only when Isabel is at gymnastics practice.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Chris, we have the same brain on this issue. But the good news is, if you frame it to kids that they're being manipulated, it does work. Alex was very excited to spot the new Heinz no-HFCS ketchup in the grocery store last week. We used to play spot the manipulation games when he was younger-I even taught him advertising color theory. The hazards of having a psychologist/marketing major for a mom. :-)

    I'm also reading Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma right now. More than I ever guessed about the politics of corn, for sure.