Warning: Dora the Explorer may be dangerous to your children’s health

Spend any time at all with a 4-year old, and you’ll realize a couple of things right away: first, Fours are a lot like Twos except they’re now bigger, stronger and louder. Secondly, Fours are not skeptical at all about what grownups tell them. Although children of this age have fairly advanced cognitive skills as well as both short- and long-term memory in place, they do not have any marketing savvy.

Researchers at Yale University confirmed this observation recently when they found that simply adding licensed cartoon characters such as Dora the Explorer to product packaging can drive pre-schoolers to choose higher-calorie, less healthful foods over more nutritious options.  And that is precisely why the fast-food industry in North America spends over $3 billion marketing to the tiniest consumers.

Not only do pre-schoolers lack the ability to figure out the marketing motives of advertisers, they do have what’s known as “pester power”, an innate children’s ability to nag their parents into purchasing items they may not otherwise buy. Thus marketing to children is all about creating pester power, because advertisers know what a powerful force it can be. 

And all that pestering really works.  According to Nickelodeon, little Dora has generated more than $11 billion in worldwide sales since 2002, having sold 65 million units of Fisher Price Dora the Explorer toys, 50 million books, and more than 20 million DVDs. Her TV show is seen in 151 markets worldwide and translated into 30 languages.  In English-speaking countries like Canada, Britain, Australia, United States, New Zealand and Ireland, Dora teaches kids Spanish; in other markets, including the Hispanic U.S. markets, the adventurous little girl teaches English.

That’s a lot of little Dora fans paying close attention to an icon of pint-sized popular culture.

As author Eric Schlosserexplains in his landmark book Fast Food Nation:

“Our fast food culturehas become indistinguishable from the popular culture of our children.”

This influence is even more powerful when small children have unlimited access to television.  For example, according to an astonishing Oregon report released by the U.S. Centers For Disease Control & Prevention, almost 20% of two-year olds spend over two hours on a typical day watching television or videos. Even worse, almost 19% of toddlers have a television in their bedrooms. These two-year olds were twice as likely to have more than two hours viewing time every day compared to children without a television in the bedroom (34.1% versus 16.3%). Source: CDCP, Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, July 16, 2010

Meanwhile, the Yale study’s lead author Christina Roberto, of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, presented the children in her study with samples from three different food types:

  • low-nutrient/low-energy graham crackers
  • low-nutrient/high-energy gummy fruit snacks
  • high-nutrient/low-energy fresh baby carrots

All the foods were packaged with the same color, shape and design, with one brandless and one branded example from each food category. Branded versions bore the likenesses of eminently recognizable cartoon characters: either Scooby Doo, Dora or Shrek.

Overall, the children perceived foods that had character branding as being tastier than those that didn’t, the researchers found. In other words, it almost doesn’t matter what snacks taste like as long as they bear the familiar image of a beloved character.

Roberto explained in the June 21st edition of Pediatrics:

“The bottom line is that when kids are presented with a choice of snack foods, and the only difference is that one package has a licensed character on it, they actually think that the food with the character tastes better.”

In fact, children between the ages of 2-5 cannot  even differentiate between regular TV programming and commercials. Young children are especially vulnerable to misleading advertising, and don’t begin to understand that advertisements are not always true until they’re about eight.

According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, 96% of food advertising directed at children is for fast foods, soft drinks, candy or pre-sweetened cereals.

Concerns about this vulnerable target market have led some jurisdictions to ban all advertising to children. The Canadian province of Québec, for example, has banned both print and broadcast advertising aimed at kids under 13. Sweden has banned advertisements aimed at children under 12, and is lobbying European Union members to adopt similar policies.

Child advocates in the U.S. condemned American television network PBS for licensing of Teletubbies merchandise to Burger King and McDonald’s in 1999, but that hasn’t stopped the fast food cross-promotion trend.

The results of aggressive marketing of fast food, soft drinks and candy to children: a society of overweight children, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. Almost one in four Canadian children between 7 and 12 is obese. A 2002 American study showed that fast-food commercials during kids programming on Saturday mornings are also pitching bigger and bigger portions, a trend that researchers link to this alarming rise of obesity among children.

To directly target our children, the fast food industry uses more than just traditional commercials. Restaurants offer incentives such as playgrounds, contests, clubs, games, and collectible toys and other merchandise linked to children’s favourites (like Dora the Explorer, Scooby Doo, or Shrek) in movies, books, TV shows and even sports leagues.

Roberto and her Yale colleagues think the findings of their research highlight the need to restrict the use of character licensing on unhealthy foods. She adds:

“We restrict this kind of cartoon marketing of cigarettes to kids because it’s a public health issue. We want to protect our children. So I think there’s a great parallel here, and the priority should be first to get these characters removed from unhealthy foods.

Find out more about the Yale study.

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4 thoughts on “Warning: Dora the Explorer may be dangerous to your children’s health

  1. As the parent of a pre-schooler I can tell you that you are 100% correct. Already he has a comprehensive awareness of and attraction to these branded characters from his storybooks! We have no television in the house but this pervasive marketing presence is everywhere. Thank you for all of your time & work here, great site.

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  2. Boy, you are so right. My 4 year old son loves Dora and her books, toys, you name it anything with Dora’s face and all her little friends, he loves them all. They should put Dora’s picture on things like broccoli and oatmeal….

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  3. This is absolutely 100% so true. Putting Dora (or Mickey Mouse, or Sponge Bob, or ANY other popular marketing merchandising ‘personality’) on any type of product, food, snack, book, etc unfairly raise the appeal of that specific item in the minds of small children.

    Maybe that’s why ads from car manufacturers used to drape half-naked women over the cars they wanted to sell to men….

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