Can’t stomach Shrek’s onions

So apparently kids WILL eat onions if Shrek’s face is on them, the Wall Street Journal finds.

To go along with this news, last week a Yale study was published that found children like the taste of snack foods with licensed characters on them better than those without the cartoons. That strikes me a little as one of those “duh” studies. But nontheless, it’s probably helpful toward an evidence-based discussion.

In response to the study, the Boston Globe spoke this week to Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and professor of nutrition at Boston University. She voiced support for first lady Michelle Obama’s task force on child obesity’s idea to urge media companies to license their characters’ images only to healthy products.

“We see the impact it could potentially have on food choices,’’ she said in an interview with the Globe, recalling the dairy industry’s successful “Got Milk?’’ campaign in the 1990s. “If there was a sticker with Scooby-Doo on bananas and if I go food shopping and I hear kids screaming for Scooby-Doo on bananas, it would be music to my ears.’’

Hurrah, the obesity crisis is over. Quick, slap Shrek, Dora the Explorer, Spiderman, WHATEVER, on the nearest vegetable.

Sorry, no. It’s cacophony to my ears. We don’t need to be pushing these tv and movie characters on kids everywhere they turn. What we need to do is stop marketing to children.

(Note:  The Yale study found no significant difference in children’s preferences for branded and unbranded carrots. Ok, but anecdotal evidence suggests kids go wild for Shrek’s onions. I don’t see this as contradictory. Kids are not stupid – they know a carrot is a carrot, but baked snacks could vary. In the case of the Shrek onions, it’s a question of whether the kids eat it at all.

And even the local grocer knows, study or no study, that marketing to kids with tv/movie characters works.
From the WSJ article: “Don’t get me wrong, Vidalias always sell,” says Mr. Freij, who was recently selling four-pound Shrek onion bags for $3.49 and loose Vidalias for $1.29 a pound. “But when you promote it with kids, it’s an automatic sell.” )

People are starting to realize the tv show tie-ins and licensed character proliferation are out of control. In 2007, even the Wall Street Journal found in its own poll that 64% of people surveyed believe that popular characters from television and movies should not be used to sell products to children. And half believe that marketing should be prohibited to children under 12.

Susan Linn,  psychologist, long-time advocate for children and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood,  wrote this week in response:

“Instead of turning carrots into shills for Scooby-Doo, we should be helping children develop relationships with food that have to do with taste and nutrition, not celebrity.  Government restrictions on food companies’ use of characters in marketing to kids will afford parents more freedom to shape children’s healthy eating habits.”

Amy Jussel, an activist working against inappropriate marketing to children, has written about this in the past:

“From an ad spin perspective it’s a brilliant first strike,” she says. But in the end people are “just being hammered by more cartoons on more products to get more kids to power whine and pester parents in new places. The produce aisle used to be the only ‘safe zone’ to navigate a cart without watching some toddler toss a hissy for cartoon packaging of some kind.”

If marketing to children is not ok, and licensed character tie-ins are not appropriate, then marketing onions, bananas, and carrots to children using licensed character tie-ins is not appropriate.

As a matter of principal, I have always avoided buying branded merchandise of any kind – snacks, m&m math books, t-shirts with logos on the front. Branded fruits and vegetables are going to undermine my parenting strategy. Should I tell the kids they can’t have bananas because Scooby-Doo is selling them? It’s bordering on the absurd if DreamWorks, Disney, Nickelodeon, Fox, etc., are going to tell me what the healthy choices are for my family.

It’s not a stretch to picture the next step if we go the route of allowing characters only on healthy food: Marketers push the envelope, lobbying money gets thrown around, and we find the regulators we paid with tax money and charged with determining what’s a “healthy” food allow the giant food conglomerates to put their characters on ketchup (well, Ronald Reagan said it’s a vegetable), sports drinks and french fries.

If I’m not buying a Dora the Explorer quilt, then I’m not buying Dora the Explorer strawberries. It’s no different whether the thing you are selling is good for kids or not. There is nothing unhealthy about a quilt. It’s the commercialization of childhood that is unhealthy.

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