In school cafeterias with vinyl banners depicting vegetable superhero characters, more young children take vegetables from the salad bar, according to a new study.
"The finding that marketing works of course isn't new or earth shattering. What is innovative here is the way in which we implement it, putting it right in the school lunch line," said lead author Andrew S. Hanks of The Ohio State University in Columbus.
Hanks and colleagues tested the marketing program in 10 elementary schools, each randomly assigned to follow one of four approaches for six weeks. Schools either continued lunchroom service as normal, added a vinyl banner with vegetable characters around the base of the salad bar, added TVs playing health education segments featuring the same characters, or added both banners and TV spots.
As reported in Pediatrics, before and during the study period, 6 to 8 percent of kids at schools without the marketing programs took vegetables from the salad bar.
In schools with the TV segments, the proportion of kids who took veggies from the salad bar rose from 14 percent to 19 percent. With the banners, veggie selection increased from 13 percent to 24 percent.
At schools were both TV and banners were used, the proportion of kids taking vegetables went from 10 percent to 35 percent.
Girls responded positively to both TV spots and banners, but boys only increased their veggie selection when there were banners in place, the researchers found.
"Something like this may not be effective for middle or high school students who might consider vegetable characters with superhuman strength as childish, but we can use marketing to influence their behavior, and adults as well," Hanks told Reuters Health by phone.
There was no measure of actual vegetable intake, he noted.
Implementing TV spots was more challenging as it was hard to find a consistent place to put the TVs in each lunchroom, but banners around the base of a salad bar were easy to install, and were more effective since they were placed right at the point of selection, he said.
If you're thinking about doing something, think about what you can do at the point of selection, Hanks said.
"A lot of times school lunch programs are run as a small business," he said. Parents who want to initiate this kind of program might bring it up to district supervisors or the health and wellness district committee.
"This really shows that if you raise awareness and bring attention to the healthier foods that kids will actually take them," said Jennifer L. Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, who was not part of the new study. "Characters made the food seem novel and appealing."
But it's not clear the effect would last, Harris told Reuters Health by phone.
"I know a lot of schools are trying ways to make vegetables more attractive to get kids to try them more," Harris said. "This is a fun way to do it."