Elmo helps kids pick healthier school lunch

CORNELL (US) — When stickers of Elmo and other popular cartoon characters endorse certain foods in school lunches, children make healthy choices like apples instead of cookies and other sweet fare.

Branding—a popular marketing ploy with junk foods and other indulgent choices—can be an equally effective tool for promoting healthier eating in school cafeterias, researchers say.

“Nutritionists and school lunch planners can turn the tables on children’s poor eating habits by adopting the same branding tactic used by junk food marketers,” says Brian Wansink, professor of marketing at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University and an expert on the subtle cues that affect people’s eating habits.


Food marketers have associated foods with mascots, super heroes, and other characters for decades. Such marketing tactics have been effective for promoting everything from candy to sugary breakfast cereals, but they can also be used to induce youngsters and adolescents to choose healthier foods, according to a new study published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

“Branding has tremendous potential to promote healthier eating. We tend to associate mascots and characters with junk food, but they can also be used to build excitement around healthy foods. This is a powerful lesson for fast food companies, food activists, and people involved in school food service,” Wansink says.

The researchers offered children a choice between cookies and apples. In some cases, generic apples and cookies were offered; in other cases, the apples were “branded” with stickers of Elmo, a popular cartoon character. They discovered that placing stickers of popular children’s cartoon characters on apples encouraged more children to choose the fruits over sweets.

Researchers from New Mexico State University contributed to the study.

Source: Cornell University