Tricking the taste buds

    Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania say those smiling movie characters on your kids’ cereal box may have the power to override some of your lessons on healthy choices and nutrition.

    Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania say those smiling movie characters on your kids’ cereal box may have the power to override some of your lessons on healthy choices and nutrition.

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    During a taste test with children at the Philadelphia’s Gallery Place Mall, everyone got the same cereal but it was packaged in different boxes. Sometimes it was called Healthy Bits, sometimes Sugar Bits. First the good news. Researcher Sarah Vaala says the children gave the healthy-sounding cereal a higher taste rating.

    Vaala: It seems like those healthy eating behavior messages are resonating even with children as young as 4.

    Vaala and co-author Matthew Lapierre study media and children’s advertising at Annenberg’s School for Communication. Lapierre has the bad news.

    Lapierre: If you throw on a character that’s in a popular movie, or popular TV show, the children don’t assess the product on the same grounds as they were before.

    The study includes children ages 4 to 6. Vaala says it suggests that a spokes-character can trump a child’s good judgement.

    Vaala: And they even affect how children think the product tastes, we called our study Tricking the Taste Buds.

    Some of the children sampled cereal from a box with pictures of dancing penguins from the movie Happy Feet. They liked it 20 percent more than when the character was not on the box.

    Lapierre says advertisers have proprietary market research to learn what works to change children’s preferences, and he says, health policy makers should have that information too.

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