Free toys have powerful influence on what kids want to eat: study

27 Jun 2017

Experts push for toy giveaways to be banned from unhealthy food

New research from Cancer Council Victoria has revealed what food companies have known for decades – that supplying movie character toys with fast food has an enormous impact on what Aussie kids want to eat.

The study involving more than 900 Australian children aged 5–9 years found that when a movie character toy was offered with a fast food meal, children were more likely to want that meal, regardless of what the meal consisted of.

Cancer Council Victoria's Senior Research Fellow and lead author of the study, Dr Helen Dixon, said the findings highlight what the food industry has known for a long time – that offering toys with food products drives children's food preferences.

"Movie tie-ins and free character toys are powerful tools used by fast food chains and food manufacturers to attract kids – and our research really captures the enormous impact this approach has," Dr Dixon said.

"The children in our study were more likely to choose a meal if it was tied to a free movie character toy."

Dr Dixon said the heavy marketing of energy-dense, nutrient-poor food and drinks is a known contributor to overweight and obesity and poor diets, and children are particularly susceptible to its influence.

"Marketing could be put to better use promoting healthier foods to kids.  We found that when a healthier meal was offered with a character toy, children reported they'd be more likely to ask their parents for that meal. Children believed the meal with the toy looked better, would taste better, and that they would feel happier if their parents bought them the meal," Dr Dixon said.

"Given the pester power parents face from their children, restricting toy premiums to healthy foods would harness this persuasive  technique to support rather than undermine parent's efforts to help their kids achieve a healthy diet."

Obesity Policy Coalition Executive Manager Jane Martin said restricting the use of movie tie-ins and toy giveaways to healthier products would be a positive step in working to improve children's diets.

"On average, unhealthy foods contribute as much as 41 per cent of daily energy intake for Australian school-aged children [1]. The food industry should not be using any tactics which further encourage children to want to eat unhealthy food, such as offering free toys or cross-promoting unhealthy meals with popular kids' movies," Ms Martin said.

"The World Health Organization is concerned about the power of free toys in promoting unhealthy foods and drinks to children [2]. In the US, San Francisco and Santa Clara County in California have banned restaurants from providing toy incentives with children's meals that don't meet set nutritional standards for healthy food [3].

"At a time when one in four Australian children are overweight or obese, we strongly encourage government to introduce policies to restrict food companies from offering toys and other child-oriented giveaways with unhealthy food and drinks." 

About the research: The research, published in Appetite journal online involved 904 grade 1 and 2 students (aged 5–9 years) from Melbourne. The students were shown a short promotional trailer for children's movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2, followed by either its associated McDonald's Happy Meal® advertisement or an advertisement for a children's leisure activity. Participants were then shown four meal options (two unhealthy and two healthier meals).  For kids shown the Happy Meal ad, we systematically varied whether the healthier and/or unhealthy meals were accompanied by free movie character toys. From the set of meals shown, kids were asked to choose which meal they would most like to have. They then completed detailed ratings of their preferred unhealthy and healthier meal respectively.

  1. Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results - Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12   
  2. World Health Organization. (2010). Set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization. 
  3. World Cancer Research Fund NOURISHING framework