Harassed parents out shopping with their offspring may notice a distinct pattern to the products that children drag down from the shelves. The chances are that their choices will have nothing to do with the flavour, say, of a can of soup – or the exact specifications of a toy car. It’s more likely that the kids are responding simply because the product is being sold by one of their favourite cartoon characters.
As the manufacturers behind Peter Pan Peanut Butter (which has been on the shelves since 1928) already know – affiliating cartoon characters to items aimed at kids is one of the oldest tricks in the book. The advertisers know that children will recognise the character and start to pester their parents for the product.
But psychologists understand that the appeal goes even deeper. Studies show that children are instantly affected by cartoon representations. They see them as role models to aspire to, and as ‘real people’ who are popular with their peer group. Even from a young age children want some of that popularity to rub off on them – by convincing their parents to buy the branded product.
The characters used to promote products aimed at kids tend to fall into two distinct categories. The first are entertainment-based characters featured in big-budget movies or popular TV shows. This category also includes more ‘traditional’ characters like Winnie the Pooh. The other category includes the kind of characters dreamt up by the manufacturers themselves – like Tony the Tiger or the Milky bar kid. Both kinds of characters work on kids in the same way – by providing fun, popular and lively images for children to aspire to.
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Companies selling breakfast cereals, crisps and sweets are some of the heaviest users of branded cartoon characters. Through these characters they can communicate the ‘fun’ elements of their products to kids without having to talk about taste or nutritional content. However, as regulations change, these characters may become a thing of the past.
Ever since 2007, the UK has banned cartoon characters in TV adverts for foods which are high in salt, sugar and fat. This has led to a significant drop in the money fast food brands invest in TV advertising. According to a report form the Department of Health, a year after the ban was announced, the money spent of the sector by advertisers dropped from 103 million pounds to 61 million pounds. However, this has not stopped brands using cartoon characters on product packaging.
While using cartoons to sell games and toys remains as popular as ever – what’s the future for food-related cartoon characters? Evidence shows that they might not disappear from our screens just yet.
One way manufacturers are getting round the ban is to reformulate foods to make them healthier. So, by cutting back on fat, sugar and salt content in their branded food they can run ads which will get past the regulators. This may be a hit with parents, but the questions remains: will even the power of cartoon characters make low-sugar foods popular with children?