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One of the causes of childhood obesity could be exposure to rotund cartoon characters, according to a dumb study led by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Based on a study of approximately 300 kids aged 8-13, the findings published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggest that children tend to perceive ovoid (or egg-shaped) characters as overweight, and this in turn leads children to consume more high-calorie junk food such as cookies and candy.

An image from the study.
One of the images from the study that children were subjected to.

“They have a tendency to eat almost twice as much indulgent food as kids who are exposed to perceived healthier looking cartoon characters or no characters at all,” said Margaret C. Campbell, marketing professor at CU-Boulder’s Leeds School of Business and lead author of the study. “What I would like to see is companies being a lot more responsible with their own marketing choices. I think it is important for parents to know they should think about the way they might be associating food with fun for kids — in the form of exposure to cartoon characters, for instance.”

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The entire concept for the study strikes me as misguided, as does placing the burden of children’s health on character designers. Perhaps children make marginally better eating choices when they look at skinny cartoon characters, but you hardly need a study to know that they’d make infinitely healthier eating choices if the trillion-dollar fast-food and processed-food industries were reformed from the ground up. As long as food manufacturers spend billions of dollars in R&D to create addictively unhealthy foods, no amount of looking at Olive Oyl will tip the scale in the fight against childhood obesity.

That’s not stopping Campbell from suggesting that companies should redesign characters. She specifically cites the transformation of Frosted Flakes mascot Tony the Tiger’s plump dad-bod into an athletic physique as a step in the right direction. She said that the slimmed-down character may encourage children to think healthier and eat less sugary cereal. Other things that would also encourage children not to eat sugary cereal: responsible parents who monitor their children’s food intake and responsible corporations that don’t sell poison to children. But, go ahead and redesign every cartoon character if it makes you feel better.

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