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Elmo vs. obesity


Can Sesame Street get your kids to eat more broccoli? A new study says yes:

Findings from Sesame Workshop’s initial “Elmo/ Broccoli” study indicated that intake of a particular food increased if it carried a sticker of a Sesame Street character. For example, in the control group (no characters on either food) 78 percent of children participating in the study chose a chocolate bar over broccoli, whereas 22 percent chose the broccoli. However, when an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli and an unknown character was placed on the chocolate bar, 50 percent chose the chocolate bar and 50 percent chose the broccoli. Such outcomes suggest that the Sesame Street characters could play a strong role in increasing the appeal of healthy foods.

My take on this is actually pretty pessimistic, at least in the near-term. This is evidence of how effective advertising is in influencing children's food choices. And it is very hard to imagine a world in which the broccoli guys have the advertising budget of the Cap'n Crunch guys. The sorts of interventions we'd need to combat this are either very expensive (matching Nabisco's ad budget with public dollars) or very intrusive (regulations ending food advertisements aimed at young children). But the upside is that they are possible. You really could eliminate food advertisements aimed at kids, just as we did with cigarette.

Photo credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty.

By Ezra Klein  |  April 20, 2010; 6:03 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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One reason the broccoli guys don't have the ad budget that the Cap'n Crunch guys do is because the CC guys benefit from massive federal subsidies that make their ingredients really cheap (corn/corn syrup, etc).

Maybe if we just stopped the federal subsidies, or started subsidizing vegetable, fruit, and locally-grown small farm operations instead of agribusiness, we might have the same effect as taxing the fattening foods.

Or let's do both!

Posted by: jshafham | April 20, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

If school lunch reform ever becomes a serious national issue this data could end up being quite helpful. We should have giant pictures of Elmo eating his vegetables in every public kindergarten in the country!

Posted by: hjdriebergen | April 20, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse

Alternatively, couldn't we ban all food advertising to children, except for endorsements by certain specified trademarked characters (say, Elmo) who are owned by an organization that genuinely cares for children and will endorse broccoli over Captain Crunch?

Posted by: theorajones1 | April 20, 2010 7:49 PM | Report abuse

Or, we could just change the name of broccoli to "Elmo Trees."

Posted by: JJenkins2 | April 20, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

God, what this demonstrates to me is that children are really stupid. Come on, kids, you're really going to choose broccoli over chocolate because Elmo is hawking it? That's pathetic. We need to raise more strong-minded young children.

Posted by: jlk7e | April 20, 2010 8:22 PM | Report abuse

notice they don't put snuffleupugus on the panel. I'm not surprised. That animal is obese!

Posted by: visionbrkr | April 20, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Nice to think we could eliminate food advertising aimed at kids. But I think the Supreme Court is just getting warmed up when it comes to rolling back restrictions on corporate "speech."

Posted by: JeffRichmond | April 20, 2010 9:07 PM | Report abuse

"Findings from Sesame Workshop’s initial “Elmo/ Broccoli” study indicated that intake of a particular food increased if it carried a sticker of a Sesame Street character."

I wonder how many adults this strategy would work on.

Posted by: slag | April 20, 2010 9:53 PM | Report abuse

slag: Given the action I see in the cereal aisle at the supermarket, probably more than you'd think. Which is kind of depressing.

Posted by: HerooftheBeach | April 21, 2010 12:40 AM | Report abuse

This study was worthless in terms of predictive value. They showed preschoolers *cards* with *pictures* of broccoli or chocolate. Surprise! they chose the card with the *picture* of Elmo. No way does that extend to real food, or to older children.

Furthermore, the small sample size (104) makes this even more ridiculous.

Posted by: member5 | April 21, 2010 1:01 AM | Report abuse

Or if you're a parent you can buy a sheet of Sesame street stickers and stick it on everything you want your kid to eat. Which should work for about 6 days, tops.

Posted by: sixman | April 21, 2010 7:42 AM | Report abuse

Uh, did you read the dateline on that press release? It's from 2005. Not really a "new" study.

Posted by: seraphina2 | April 21, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse

I don't know. The kids with parents smart enough to turn off the boob tube and feed/educate their kids properly about famiy recipes and personal nutrition seem to be turning out ok.

Something about survival of the fittest? Maybe all the breakfast/lunch in schools, and the daycare rearing from age 6 weeks leaves little time for responsible family skills like cooking and teaching the little ones about food?

Look at what all your damn liberal subsidies are doing to so many poor American kids. PLEASE stop helping them and let the families parent and not the government. Stop subsidizing more and more children born into daycare and school food programs, and start encouraging the more healthy to breed and take care of their broods.

Again, survival of the fittest.

Posted by: Mary42 | April 21, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

How about elmo vs. poor nutrition? I don't know why you continue to spin your very pro-nutrition, pro-exercise arguments, in a continually hurtful fat-biased way. It's not necessary. All kids, fat and thin, would benefit from programs that were targeted to giving them meaningfully healthy food.

Posted by: silentbeep | April 21, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Children's advertising used to be more regulated - in the late '60s they introduced limits on how many minutes out of an hour you could have ads, prohibitions on shows that served as promotions for toy lines, and required short "bumpers" bracketing breaks to more forcefully distinguish between program and commercial content.

The result was terrible for children's TV quality - to make money off of such little ad time, you had to cut expenses real tight, which was why all the networks filled their Saturday morning schedules with terrible limited-animation Hanna-Barbera stuff, shows that had something like 5 voices, 4 premises, and 3 plots between them.

Then under Reagan all that stuff (except the bumpers) got dropped, and you had a Saturday morning renaissance, with all the new tie-ins (He-Man, G.I. Joe, Transformers &ct), the WB afternoon cartoons, the development of dedicated channels in Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

And if you tried to cut snack & cereal ads back out of there, I'm not sure you'd be able to support that model on toy ads alone. More likely you'd see more efforts to pick up anime rights and dub it for cheap. And right now we're already kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to finding stuff worth translating - no more of that, please.

Posted by: Senescent | April 21, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

"Chose" the broccoli, or "chose, and then ate, the broccoli"?

Posted by: mb129 | April 23, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

I know that there are already laws that say channels that broadcast kids entertainment must include a certain amount of educational content.
Perhaps a compromise could be worked out that if you allow your characters to be used royalty free for approved healthy food packages, you could get a little more leeway on the time sharing rules.
Elmo might already be OK with this, but I am thinking for shows like Sponge Bob and what not.

Posted by: chrynoble | April 26, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

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