"Peppa Pig and Homer Simpson could be fuelling the child obesity crisis by causing youngsters to eat more," The Daily Telegraph reports after a series of psychological experiments found a link between exposure to overweight characters and overeating unhealthy food.
This series of three studies involved 301 children aged 6 to 14 years. The children were exposed to images of a normal-weight character, a character drawn to be obviously overweight, or a control image of a picture of a mug, as this was a familiar object but unrelated to weight stereotypes.
Researchers found an association between a higher consumption of unhealthy foods and exposure to the overweight image. This is an interesting finding, as it may mean we need to rethink the design of characters used in marketing and cartoons.
The findings may also help policymakers work out how best to target health promotion messages at this important age group to help them potentially make changes for the rest of their lives.
But claims poor old Peppa Pig is fuelling the obesity crisis seem unfair. Tubby cartoon characters such as Porky Pig, Garfield and Fred Flintstone have been around for decades, before childhood obesity was a problem.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and Indiana University.
It was funded by a Sterling-Rice Group grant and an Association for Consumer Research Transformative Consumer Research grant.
It was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Consumer Psychology.
This has been reported accurately, if uncritically, by the Telegraph and the Mail Online.
What kind of research was this?
This was a series of three randomised controlled trials aiming to understand whether different body weight cartoon characters influence the amount of non-nutritious food children choose and consume.
Randomised controlled trials are the best way of assessing these associations.
What did the research involve?
The researchers conducted three trials assessing priming in children and their consumption of more indulgent foods.
Studies one and two made use of colour prints of a normal-weight character, an overweight character or a neutral control, in this case a picture of a mug.
Sixty children with an average age of 12.9 years were recruited and told they were doing a survey about printers. The children were randomly assigned to see a colour print of a normal-weight character, an overweight character or the control.
The children completed a survey that included questions on age, gender, and family printer ownership and usage. They were also required to list the first three thoughts they had upon seeing the print and were asked to rate print clarity.
After the survey was completed they were thanked and told to take some sweets. The number of sweets taken was recorded for each child.
This study attempted to examine whether children who see an overweight cartoon character together with a healthy-weight character will choose and consume more indulgent foods than children who do not see an overweight character.
Seventy-four children were included in this study, with an average age of 11.7 years. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups where they either saw a picture of a normal-weight character, an overweight character, or the normal and overweight characters together. The rest of the study was the same as for study one.
The health knowledge of younger children was investigated to see if this had an effect on the amount of unhealthy food they consumed after seeing an overweight cartoon character.
In this study, 167 children with an average age of 8.3 years were randomly assigned to see either a normal or overweight cartoon character either before or after they had been asked questions to activate their health knowledge.
The children's health knowledge was activated by asking them to think about things that make you healthy, and to choose the healthiest option of each of six matched pairs presented both as pictures and words.
- getting sleep versus watching television
- fizzy drinks versus milk
- playing inside versus playing outside
The activated health knowledge group completed the questions at the beginning of the study, while the non-activated health knowledge group completed the questions as the last part of the study.
Children were exposed to either a normal-weight or overweight cartoon character. The picture was turned over before the children were given a bowl of eight mini biscuits and a taste test questionnaire. They were instructed to have at least one biscuit, and taste perception was rated on a five-point scale from "yucky" to "yummy".
After the biscuits were removed, the cartoon character was turned face up on the table. Participants were instructed to make a collage that best showed what they thought the character was like using stickers.
What were the basic results?
Study one found an average of 3.8 sweets were taken by those exposed to the overweight image – this was more than twice the amount taken in the control group, who took an average of 1.55 sweets, or the normal-weight image group, who took 1.7 sweets.
Study two found children exposed to the overweight image took an average of 3.21 sweets, compared with 1.77 in the normal-weight group. Participants who saw both the normal-weight and overweight prints took an average of 3.29 sweets.
These findings suggest exposure to an overweight cartoon character activates this stereotype, leading to a greater consumption of sweets.
Study three found when health knowledge was activated, the image shown did not have any effect on the number of biscuits eaten. For children where health knowledge was not activated, behaviour was the same as in studies one and two, with the overweight image resulting in an average of 4.23 cookies consumed, compared with 3.23 cookies in the healthy-weight image group.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers concluded that, "Results with children from 6 to 14 years old indicate that overweight cartoon character primes can activate the overweight stereotype, leading to relatively high levels of food intake.
"This effect persisted when participants were simultaneously exposed to a normal-weight and an overweight character together, and was successfully moderated by the activation of health knowledge."
This interesting study assessed the impact of overweight cartoon characters on children's consumption of unhealthy foods. It shows overweight cartoon characters can activate the overweight stereotype, which may result in a higher consumption of unhealthy foods in children. But activating health knowledge seemed to counter the effects.
The main strength of this trial is that the children were randomly assigned to each group, which reduces the risk of bias. However, this study was conducted in a fairly small number of children from one location, reducing the generalisability of these findings.
Also, the study only looked at the consumption of unhealthy foods. It would have been interesting if the researchers had investigated whether consumption was increased on the whole rather than just with unhealthy snacks, perhaps with healthy alternatives.
The overconsumption of unhealthy snacks may result in increased body weight, which is a concern to parents and society. Excess weight can lead to a range of health concerns, so it's vital to find ways to stop this before it happens.
The best way parents can help is to make sure their child eats a healthy diet and gets plenty of exercise, and to only provide sugary snacks as an occasional treat rather than a staple of their diet. Read more about healthy snack alternatives.
Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website
Links to the headlines
The Daily Telegraph, 14 July 2014
Mail Online, 14 July 2015
Links to the science
Journal of Consumer Psychology. Published June 17 2015