Washington, DC - Newly returned from his shutdown furlough, Let's Move! Executive Director Sam Kass on Friday gave marketing tips to fruit and vegetable industry leaders. It was a follow up to First Lady Michelle Obama's White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children, held in September.
Speaking by telephone from the White House with attendees at the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) 'Fresh Summit' in New Orleans, Kass discussed "strategies to build demand for fruits and vegetables, and how the produce industry can transform their efforts from fulfilling demand to creating demand," according to a readout from the Let's Move! campaign. PMA is a global produce trade group.
During the call, Kass also touted a branding study that used the Sesame Street character Elmo to influence children's food choices, a favorite reference point for Mrs. Obama and the Let's Move! campaign. At her Convening, Mrs. Obama asked food corporations to change their advertising practices, and among other things suggested that costumed and cartoon characters can be used to sell healthier foods rather than junk foods.
"During the discussion, Kass cited a study demonstrating the effectiveness of using highly recognizable cartoon characters, such as those from Sesame Street, to encourage and reinforce habits supporting healthy lifestyles and good nutrition," said Let's Move!.
"When children in the study were asked to choose between an unlabeled piece of broccoli or chocolate, children chose broccoli only 22% of the time. However, when a sticker of Elmo was placed on broccoli and an unknown character was placed on the chocolate, 50% of the children reached for broccoli," said Let's Move!.
Bryan Silbermann, President and CEO of PMA, served as the facilitator for Kass' call, which also included Jeff Dunn, CEO of Bolthouse Farms, Let's Move! said. The company sells packaged carrots, juices and smoothies.
The Elmo study Kass discussed has gotten much attention, though it used photos of food items rather than actual food items.
After Sesame Workshop launched its Healthy Habits for Life initiative in 2005, the group reported that it had conducted an "initial pilot study" with 104 pre-school children to test the influence of branding on childrens' eating habits, using the character of Elmo as the test subject influencer.
Sesame Workshop sent its researchers into pre-school classrooms, where they showed the children two cards: One with a picture of broccoli, the other with a snapshot of chocolate.
During the first stage of the study, 78% of the kids preferred the chocolate card. But when researchers put Elmo on the chocolate card and a generic red puppet on the broccoli card, the preference for chocolate went up to 89%.
Next, Elmo was placed with the broccoli, and the generic red character was placed next to the chocolate. Children's preferences split right down the middle, with 50% reaching for the broccoli card that featured Elmo. Sesame Workshop presented the results at the Society for Research in Child Development in 2005.
In 2012, Sesame Workshop reported that it had conducted "a larger follow-up study," published online in April of 2012 in the Journal of Health Communication.
"We found that although stickers of Elmo and other favorite characters did not increase the appeal of healthy foods equal to that of more sugary or salty snacks, we were able to increase the appeal of any food when it contained a sticker of a Sesame Street character compared to a different food without a character or with an unknown character," Sesame Workshop said.
"Moreover, children were more likely to taste pieces of a healthy food when it was labeled with Elmo."
An independent study reported in October 2012 from researchers at Cornell University's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management tracked how Elmo branding impacts elementary school students' choices in school lunch lines.
Over five consecutive days, researchers studied 228 children ages 8-11 in seven New York schools as they were faced with choices of apples and cookies that were either branded with an Elmo sticker, unbranded, or branded with a sticker featuring an unfamiliar character.
The researchers tracked the children's' selections as they arrived at the end of their school cafeteria lunch lines, where they could choose an apple, a cookie, or both items.
By the end of the study, 65% of the children were more likely to add an apple to their lunch tray if it had an Elmo sticker compared to the apples that had no Elmo stickers, while "there was no effect of the Elmo icon on the cookie" selection, researchers reported. The unknown character sticker also had no impact on apple selection.
The findings were published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine journal (now titled JAMA Pediatrics). Click here to read the study, "Can Branding Improve School Lunches?"
*Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama