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How Elmo Can Help Kids Make Healthier Lunch Choices

Wansink, B., Just, D. R., & Payne, C. R. (2012). Can branding improve school lunches?. Preventive Medicine, 166(10): 967-968

Do kids always flock to junk food like cookies over fruit like apples? Not if the fruits have stickers of their favorite characters! A recent study by Dr. Brian Wansink, Dr. David R. Just, and Dr. Collin R. Payne shows that branding of food, such as putting a sticker on an apple, can improve the attractiveness of healthier food. This study also sheds light on how branding can additionally be used the right way to nudge children to make better food choices.

Elmo and kids

A total of 208 kids, boys and girls ages 8 to 11, from ethnically and economically diverse, rural and suburban areas of upstate New York were chosen for the 5-day study. Each day after selecting lunch, the kids had an opportunity to take one or both of the last items: an apple or cookie. On the first day, they were asked to choose a cookie or apple without stickers to see the child’s baseline preference. The next three days they tried different interventions. On one day they put a sticker of a popular character (i.e. Elmo) only on the cookie. On another day they put a sticker of the popular character only on the apple. And on another day, they put an unfamiliar character only on the apple. Then on the final day, the children once again had the choice of the snacks without branding to see if there was any carryover.

Re-making carrots as cool

The researchers found that kids nearly doubled their apple choice if a familiar character, like Elmo, had been stickered onto the fruit. There was no such effect when the same had been done to a cookie. Yet, if a character unfamiliar to the majority of the children had been placed on the apple, there was no difference from the choice typical for that particular child.

Though concerns over the impact of branding on unhealthy lunch foods do exist, this study suggests that healthier options benefit more than more indulgent foods from being spruced up to appeal to kids. So next time, put a sticker of their favorite character to nudge your kid to make a healthier choice. Another suggestion? Check our What Would Batman Eat? page for more ideas on how to nudge your kids to make healthier choices!

Article Summary by Joanna Ladzinski
Full text paper: (link to the publisher)

Brian Wansink, PhD
Food and Brand Lab, Director
110 Warren Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853