Overweight Cartoon Characters Can Affect Kids’ Eating Habits


The media has often been criticized for inculcating young girls with an unrealistic image of beauty and unattainable body standards. Now children’s favorite cartoon characters are under attack for just the opposite: being too fat.

Beloved characters like Porky Pig and Winnie the Pooh are teaching children poor health habits according to a new study, reports Business Standard. Kids who watch cartoon characters who exhibit poor eating habits:

“… have a tendency to eat almost twice as much indulgent food as kids who are exposed to perceived healthier looking cartoon characters or no characters at all,” said lead author of the study Margaret Campbell, marketing professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the US.

The study found that children perceive oval or egg-shaped characters as overweight. It makes no difference if they are imaginary creatures because children assign human characteristics to them, writes Talal Al-Khatib for Discovery News.

A previous study found that children as young as one year old see cartoons as human even if they are a basic geometric shape with a face.

The result of children eating more after watching a portly character on TV may be due to a concept called stereotype priming. Children see and identify characters as a stereotype, which this leads to stereotype-consistent actions. Children are able to link unhealthy eating or over eating to being overweight and, therefore, do so after watching overweight cartoons.

These results were gathered from over 300 participants ranging in ages from six to thirteen.

The Economic Times writes that kids were able to counteract the priming of the cartoon when they were asked to recall previously-learned health knowledge.

In the study, children were asked to choose the healthiest option represented in six pairs of words, such as soda vs. milk. When they looked at an overweight cartoon after, they ate less junk food.

“Kids don’t necessarily draw upon previous knowledge when they’re making decisions. But perhaps if we’re able to help trigger their health knowledge with a quiz just as they’re about to select lunch at school, for instance, they’ll choose the more nutritious foods,” Campbell said.

This study reveals implications for parents and marketers alike at a time when childhood obesity is at an all-time high. Kids are constantly surrounded by characters via TV shows, video games, graphic novels, movies and product packaging. They are being influenced by what media shows them around the clock, and it’s the job of parents and companies to set a good example for them.

One company that has changed the image of its characters in a responsible way is Kellogg’s, writes Rick Nauret for Psych Central. Tony the Tiger got a makeover including a slimmer, more athletic figure in hopes to link the character with healthy eating concepts.

“I think it is important for parents to know they should think about the way they might be associating food with fun for kids — in the form of exposure to cartoon characters, for instance — as opposed to associating food with nutrition and the family structure.”