Apples became substantially more popular at lunch time among grade school children when the fruits carried pictures of the Sesame Street puppet Elmo, researchers said.
According to an article in Medpagetoday.com, when the apples sported an Elmo sticker, the number of children, ages 8 to 11, taking apples with their lunches increased by about 65% compared with stickerless apples, reported Brian Wansink, PhD, of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and colleagues.
In a research letter appearing online in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the researchers noted that putting Elmo stickers on cookies did not have a similar effect -- although that was likely because more than 95% of children took cookies even when they didn't have stickers.
Associating food products with popular kids' characters has long been a favorite tactic for companies promoting breakfast cereals and fast foods. Wansink and colleagues wondered whether "branding" might also work for healthier foods.
They conducted a trial in seven upstate New York schools, involving a total of 208 students from 8- to 11-years-old. On each day of the 5-day trial, children could take either an apple or a cookie or both.
On the first day, all students were offered unlabeled apples and cookies along with their regular school lunches, which served as the study's baseline. More than 95% of the children took the cookies but only 20% took an apple.
Three interventions were provided over the next 3 days:
- Unbranded apple and a cookie with an Elmo sticker
- Apple with an Elmo sticker and an unbranded cookie
- Apple with a sticker featuring an unfamiliar character and an unbranded cookie
On the last day, apples and cookies without stickers were again offered.
Not all the children ate the items they had taken, but most did eat at least a portion, Wansink and colleagues reported.
Relative to baseline, about 20% more children took apples when they carried the unknown character sticker (P=0.68). The approximately 65% increase in apple popularity with the Elmo sticker relative to baseline, on the other hand, just brushed statistical significance (P=0.05).
The researchers also found that increases in apple consumption had no impact on children's liking for cookies. Cookies were taken by 95% or more of the students on every day of the study.
Wansink and colleagues concluded that the Elmo brand carried substantial weight in children's food choices, and may even be more powerful for healthier foods than for "indulgent, highly processed foods," they wrote.
"Just as attractive names have been shown to increase the selection of healthier foods in school lunchrooms, brands and cartoon characters can do the same with preliterate children," the researchers wrote.
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