It was one of those “I knew that!” parenting moments.
I had hauled my 3-year-old in for a doctor’s visit that was likely to end with some needle unpleasantness, so I’d brought along lots of distractions in my diaper suitcase: books, sippy cup, toys, and what I considered healthy snacks.
As my son munched away on his fruit snack, our kindly pediatrician commented, “Yes, we used to bribe our children with candy, too.”
Candy? No, no, these are fruit snacks. See? It says “fruit” right in the name.
Yes, right before the next two ingredients: CORN SYRUP and SUGAR.
I like to think of myself as an educated parent, but I was duped by the most elemental of marketing ploys.
I’m not alone, because grocery aisles are full of boxes claiming to contain all manner of healthy foods for kids.
University of Illinois advertising Professor (and mom) Michelle Nelson is taking a closer look at the packaging on kids’ snacks in a study with her “Graduate Research Methods in Advertising” class.
Nelson and her colleagues are interested in how children and their parents make choices in the grocery store, particularly those aisles that appeal to the younger set.
“So many decisions these days are made in the retail environment,” Nelson says, “so packaging has become a really important tool of advertising.”
Written claims — “natural,” for instance, or “light” — are pretty heavily regulated. But regulators haven’t paid too much attention to the visuals, she says.
Boxes of fruit snacks and the like are carefully designed to capture kids’ and parents’ attention — say, with a popular animated character or giant berries on the front.
The hope is that a piece of fruit will make the product seem like a healthier option to moms and dads who might be too tired — or too distracted by their toddler bolting to the next aisle — to compare nutrition facts.
Likewise, a picture of Super Mario jumping really high might make 4-year-olds think a snack will give them super strength. And a princess package conveys “other qualities, good or bad,” says Nelson, who has a 5-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son.
The study will test those theories. Her graduate students are interviewing 4-year-olds about how they would shop. Most of them can’t read yet, but they often accompany their parents to the store and, as Nelson says, “they have considerable influence in the marketplace.” Sometimes accompanied by whining or ear-piercing wails.
The goal is to raise advertising literacy among children and their parents about what they see in the stores, on TV and other media, Nelson says.
In a session last week, graduate student Regina Ahn prepared for her visit with 4-year-old Grant Zhang by placing four boxes of fruit snacks on a table — one featuring Super Mario, one with Dora the Explorer, one Kellogg’s Fruity Snacks (with lots of berries on the front), and one Mott’s “Fruit Medleys.”
The interviewer asks the children to choose the one they’d buy, and why, then the one their parents would choose, and why.
Second, the children sort a variety of fruit-flavored foods, from Starburst and Skittles to applesauce and fruit cups, into categories: fun, healthy, tasty, teeth-rotting (I made that one up), etc.
Finally, they’re asked to draw pictures of healthy and unhealthy foods.
Parents may think of Mott’s as a healthier brand because of its applesauce connection. But the Mott’s fruit snacks — with a fresh apple and the words “natural,” “fruit” and “vegetables” (???) in colorful bold letters on the front — had the same amount of sodium as the Dora brand, 30 grams, whereas Super Mario and Kellogg’s Fruity Snacks had zero.
The advertising class is designed mostly to teach graduate students about research methods, but Nelson hopes the research may serve as a pilot for larger studies on the topic.
“I’m interested in what kids know — and how we can teach them to be more critical thinkers,” she says.
Nelson has personal experience with this phenomenon. Last year, when her daughter was 4, she took her to the grocery store and allowed her out of the cart for the first time. They went to the aisle with the fruit snacks and granola bars, and Nelson asked her to pick out anything she wanted.
“For 32 seconds she was paralyzed by choice,” says Nelson, who taped the experience. “She picked out the princess fruit snack. She liked them because of the pretty dresses.
“We don’t let them watch a lot of commercial TV. Yet you still have to train them so they understand,” she says.
Julie Wurth writes about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, email@example.com  or Twitter.com/jawurth.
At top, Grant Zhang, 4, explains why he likes certain snacks to graduate student Regina Ahn at the University of Illinois Child Development Lab in Urbana. Below, Ahn and Professor Michelle Nelson compare ingredients on snacks as part of their study on how packaging affects the way kids and parents view foods.
Vanda Bidwell/The News-Gazette