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The power of pudgy cartoon characters: how they're causing kids to eat more

by Linda Carroll / / Source: TODAY

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Whether it’s Patrick Star from “SpongeBob SquarePants” or Baymax from “Big Hero 6,” chubby cartoon characters may be prompting our kids to eat too much, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that children who were shown a picture of a pudgy protagonist consumed more than twice as much junk food as those who looked at a trimmer character, according to the report published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Margaret C. Campbell, PhD

The power of the pudgy characters was a surprise to the researchers, said the study’s lead author, Margaret Campbell, a professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“We didn’t know for sure whether fictional cartoon characters would evoke a sense of human behavior,” Campbell said. “We were interested in looking at this because children see cartoon characters, like Patrick Star, for example, acting like humans.”

RELATED: Reusable bags prompt some shoppers to buy more junk food

Campbell and her colleagues ran a series of experiments using drawings of cartoon characters that the researchers suspected might trigger an association with certain stereotypes in the minds of kids viewing them.

These stereotypes can be very powerful and can influence our behavior in concrete ways, Campbell said. “If you think about the associations we have with elderly people, you might think, walking slowly and being frail and playing bingo,” she said. “What’s amazing is that if we think about elderly people walking slowly, we walk more slowly.”

Similarly, she said, “In our society we have a stereotype of someone who is overweight consuming what we think of as indulgent foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition.”

In Campbell’s first experiment, 60 eighth graders were asked rate the quality of a printer in a questionnaire after looking at a picture of either a chubby critter or a trim one.

After the children finished their questionnaires, a researcher told them, “thanks for your help, you can take some candy,” and pointed to bowls containing Hershey Kisses or Starbursts. The average number of candies taken by those who looked at the overweight character was 3.8, as compared to 1.55 taken by children looking at a trimmer one.

Another experiment found that even if children viewed a thin character standing next to the chubby one, they still took more candy than children who saw only a trim character.

Margaret C. Campbell, PhD

There was good news, though. If children were given a quiz that tested their knowledge of healthy eating before they were shown any drawings, they took the same amount of sweets whether they saw a chubby or thin character.

That was one of the really important findings of the study, Campbell said.

And it shows there are ways to avoid the impact of chubby cartoon characters, she added. At the top of the list: Not letting your kids eat while they are watching TV or playing a video game.

“All of us love food and we’re not saying don’t enjoy it,” Campbell said. “But don’t mingle eating with other forms of entertainment that encourage eating.”

The take-home message for parents is that there are ways to overcome these kinds of unintended effects, said Sharon Strohm, clinical nutrition manager at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“I thought this was a very cool study,” Strohm said. “It shows that kids can be manipulated at the time of eating to choose healthy foods. But it’s really up to parents to empower their kids throughout the home environment by including them in shopping for food and preparing it and also talking about how it affects health.”

MORE: TV in bedrooms may boost kids' risk of fat, disease

Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” and the recently published “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry”

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