The federal government is worried Dora the Explorer is contributing to childhood obesity.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded two grants totaling $750,000 to find out if cartoon characters are making children overweight and whether researchers can hone the marketing power of characters to sway kids’ eating habits.
Both studies were awarded last June, and the project is scheduled to run until 2016. The first grant, totaling $300,000, was awarded to Ellen Wartella, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. Sandra Calvert, the director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, received $450,000.
The "collaborative research" is entitled, "Media Characters: The Unhidden Persuaders in Food Marketing to Children."
The NSF is concerned that kids’ "one-sided, emotionally-tinged friendships" with the likes of Dora and Toucan Sam have too much influence on children’s behavior, and believes their study will be of profound importance.
"Without research about the underlying reasons for the obesity crisis, the future of our children is in peril," the grant said. "U.S. children are now expected to have shorter life spans than their parents. Media characters may be playing an unhidden role in this epidemic."
If so, the researchers want to use cartoon-marketing power to get children to eat healthier. The study hopes its findings will ultimately influence public policy and motivate companies to use characters "more wisely."
"These same characters may also be able to change children's food choices and eating patterns by promoting healthier foods," the grant said. "The knowledge that will be gained from this project can help scientists understand the important role that media characters are playing in the childhood obesity crisis."
"This information can then be used to help parents make healthy decisions for their children in supermarkets and restaurants, to help businesses use their media characters more wisely, and to inform legislators about the kinds of policies that can improve the health and well being of future generations," the grant said.
Specifically, the project will involve studying children between the ages of 3 and 8 using an "experimental method." The children will interact with a "novel media character" to see how the character influences the child’s behavior.
Aubry Alvarez, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University who is working on the study, said they are focusing on Dora the Explorer, characters from "Monsters Inc.," the Kool-Aid Man, and Toucan Sam.
"With the food marketing and media character study we are investigating the use of media characters (including cartoon and celebrity endorsers, as well as licensed product spokes-characters) in food advertisements targeted at children 12 years of age and younger," Alvarez told the Washington Free Beacon. "Specifically, we hope to assess how these characters are used relative to the nutritional value of the food they are advertising (or marketed alongside)."
"We are currently analyzing the extensive data we have collected from television commercials as well as advertisements embedded within websites, mobile applications, video games, and product packaging," she said.
Cartoon characters are often used to promote food products. For instance, Dora the Explorer has been used on fruit snacks, ice cream, and Campbell’s soup. Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger has marketed Frosted Flakes since 1951, and the Flintstones have their own line of children's multi-vitamins.
Alice Lichtenstein, the vice chair of the federal committee crafting nutrition guidelines, has voiced her support for using cartoons on food packaging, arguing that a picture of SpongeBob SquarePants makes it more likely for kids to grab a healthier snack.
"What the research shows is putting a cartoon character on a bag of carrots makes it more likely a child is going to eat those carrots," she said during a recent lecture at Boston University. "Well, we might as well take advantage of it."
The researchers heading the NSF study are not as sure.
"While characters such as these have been used as marketing tools for many years, little is known about the extent to which this marketing is effective or the specific conditions under which children are susceptible to its influence," the grant said.
The government has already funded research in this area. The National Institutes of Health gave nearly $1 million to a professor at Cornell University for a "Nudging Nutrition" project.
The study focused on the "supermarket environment" in search of a "better understanding of consumer behavior regarding food."
The project also considered whether taxes and subsidies, combined with nutrition information, could "encourage purchases of healthier food."
Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, who received the funding, released his results last week. He found that cartoon character’s eyes could catch "your kids' attention as you go down the cereal aisle at the grocery store."