Cartoons hit the sweet spot on children’s cereal choice

Research shows children’s eyes are drawn to cartoon characters on cereal packaging

A cartoon character on a cereal box attracts more attention and is more likely to be chosen than the same cereal type without a cartoon character, research by Anglia Ruskin University has found.

Researchers asked 214 children aged between three and 16 to wear eye-tracking glasses, which record eye movements, whilst choosing cereal from a retail display.

The display contained four cereal types, with each type being represented by a cartoon and non-cartoon variant. For each cereal type – frosted flakes, wheats, chocolate rice pops and rice pops – the cartoon version was looked at first, looked at longer and chosen more often.

Cereals featuring cartoon characters were almost 2.5 times more likely to be chosen than non-cartoon cereals. Almost two thirds of children looked at a packet featuring a cartoon first and looked at cartoon-based packets for longer.

Cartoon vs non-cartoon figures
The distribution of choice and visual attention on cartoon and non-cartoon cereal boxes.

Where a cartoon was present in packaging, it was the area seen first. Where no cartoon was present, the product image was seen first.

The presence of a cartoon in packaging changes the order in which children see different packaging elements. The effect of the cartoon is to shift children’s attention from the product image and the brand name to the cartoon itself.

Cartoon vs non-cartoon areas of interest
The addition of cartoon character changes the order in which packaging elements are viewed.

Supermarket own brands were used in this research to avoid familiarity with licenced characters.

According to Public Health England, children in the UK consume 50% of their daily recommended sugar intake from cereal and as such the packaging of such products has been the subject of debate. Recently, some cereal makers were criticised over the “’Scandalous’ lack of sugar warnings on cereals” and the Dutch Food Industry Federation announced voluntary measures to remove cartoon characters from unhealthy food products aimed at children.

Tim Froggett, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Anglia Ruskin University, said: “Our research shows why using cartoon characters to promote their products is such a popular option for cereal brands. Cartoons catch the attention of children ahead of any other aspect of the packaging, are key determinants of choice and are likely to play a big role in “pester power”.

“In light of levels of childhood obesity and the growing pressure on companies to promote healthier eating among children, there could be scope for using cartoon characters to push the sales of low-sugar foods that would otherwise be seen as unappealing by youngsters.”

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