Can Sesame Street Help Us Fight Obesity?

What happens when you put a picture of a Sesame Street character on vegetables? Something like this:

Findings from Sesame Workshop's initial "Elmo/ Broccoli" study indicated that intake of a particular food increased if it carried a sticker of a Sesame Street character. For example, in the control group (no characters on either food) 78 percent of children participating in the study chose a chocolate bar over broccoli, whereas 22 percent chose the broccoli. However, when an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli and an unknown character was placed on the chocolate bar, 50 percent chose the chocolate bar and 50 percent chose the broccoli. Such outcomes suggest that the Sesame Street characters could play a strong role in increasing the appeal of healthy foods.

Two points.

1. If Elmo can make broccoli cool, imagine what pictures of Justin Bieber could do for Grape Nuts and Brussels sprouts.

2. It's important to read these studies with a critical eye. Big Bird isn't The Answer to childhood obesity. Healthy cereals have been branding with athletes since at least the 1980s, and Americans' waists have only widened. Wheaties, after all, still tastes like Wheaties no matter who's on the box. But still, studies like this are important. Americans eating habits are probably more elastic than we think, and a thousand small, experimental framing devices might accomplish more than a single tax strategy.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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