Cereal cartoon characters carry clout: study

Some estimates say the average preschooler sees more than 500 breakfast cereal commercials a year. And characters in those ads carry a lot of clout.

"Early Show" Contributor Taryn Winter Brill reported breakfast cereal is a $10 billion a year business with some stiff competition -- especially among children's cereals.

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Kelly Brownell, of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, told Brill cereal manufacturers spend more than $150 million a year just targeting kids.

Companies, Brill noted, target kids with cartoon characters in commercials and on boxes that practically reach from the store shelves to grab your kids' attention.

It's an age-old tradition. Tony the Tiger made his debut in the 1950s.

Brownell added, "Characters go back decades, and persist today. They're very important icons -- kids recognize them very early in life and it has an impact on what they choose to eat."

However, one study finds these characters also influence how children think the cereal tastes. According to a new study, those lovable creatures make kids think their cereal taste better.

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Matt Lapierre, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, told CBS News, "When a character was on the box, children said that they enjoyed the product more."

Lapierre was part of a recent study at the University of Pennsylvania in which children were asked to use smiley faces to rate the taste of cereal. Researchers found children awarded more smiley faces to the cereal from boxes with cartoon characters than the ones without -- even though the cereal itself was the same.

In her own unscientific experiment, Brill rounded up six young cereal lovers to see if we could get similar results.

She put the same common breakfast cereal into two containers. One container was plain and the other was decorated with popular cartoon characters.

Five out of the six children chose the container with the character stickers on its side.

One girl said the cereal with the stickers on the side was sweeter.

The cereals were identical.

Brill repeated the experiment with two more cereals.

Brill noted, "Healthy, or sugary. It didn't seem to matter. What mattered most was the container it came from."

Brill reported unscientific or not, the results were the same as the University of Pennsylvania study. Children's food choices are influenced as much by the characters they see, as by the taste in their mouths.

On "The Early Show" Tuesday morning, Brill said experts she and her team spoke with said most of the cereals featuring cartoon characters are, in fact, the least healthy ones. The experts, Brill said, say kids tend to over eat sugary cereals, sending their parents back to the store for more and more.

But what about when only the name on the box is considered - and no characters are included on the boxes? How do kids respond then?

Brill explained when the same cereal is considered, but named "Healthy Bits" and "Sugary Bits." The kids studied overwhelmingly chose the "Healthy Bits."

She added, "Then they introduced the cartoon characters on to the 'Sugary Bits' and the kids liked the sugar cereal better, saying that the cartoon characters take precedence."

Co-anchor Erica Hill remarked, "The characters carry weight. I wouldn't think that the word healthy would carry weight on sugar."

Brill responded, "The researchers were surprised, too. They thought they would go to the sugar cereals and saying, I guess, nowadays children are told commonly (to) stay away from sugar. 'Sugar is bad. Go to the healthy cereals.' And the names are changed because cereal marketers have picked up on this trend. Take a look. Corn Pops used to go by Sugar Corn Pops. ... Golden Crisp, that originally went by Super Sugar Crisp. Haven't seen the boxes in a long time. Frosted Flakes used to go by Sugar Frosted and Honey Smacks, it's Sugar Smacks and I recognize, but over the years they just -- they eliminated the word sugar."

But Hill says sometimes parents can go completely rogue on their kids' cereal choices.

She said, "You buy one box of a certain cereal, and then you just keep putting in the bag of the one of the healthier one."