Favorite Familiar Faces: How to Use Branding and Priming to Promote Healthy Foods

Kids make healthier food choices when they associate it with their favorite character.

Kids often imitate their role models—many of whom are pop culture icons such as cartoon characters, superheroes, or puppets from TV. Companies capitalize on this love of recognizable characters to draw kids to their products, including unhealthy junk foods. Researchers at the Cornell Food & Brand Lab, however, saw the success of such branding as an opportunity to increase the appeal of healthy choices. Two key studies found that branding & priming with familiar faces like Elmo & Batman can drastically improve what kids choose to eat.

Branding: Elmo Says Eat This Apple!

The researchers looked at product branding by associating apples with a familiar fuzzy-faced icon: Elmo. They branded foods with Elmo stickers, varying sticker-food combinations over 3 days to see how each one impacted food choice:

  1. Apple + Elmo sticker; Cookie without sticker
  2. Apple without sticker; Cookie + Elmo sticker
  3. Apple + Unfamiliar cartoon sticker; Cookie without sticker

The findings: When the apple had the recognizable Elmo sticker, kids ages 8 to 11 were almost twice as likely to choose the healthy fruit! The character branding was a highly effective technique for making healthy foods more appealing to children.

Interestingly, the Elmo sticker had no effect when placed on the cookie, and the unfamiliar cartoon character didn’t improve sales. Only the familiar friendly face on the apple influenced food selection.

Priming: What Would Batman Eat?

While the branding study looked at the effects of placing an image directly on a product, the researchers also examined priming, in which the presentation of an image or concept influences a subsequent decision. In this case, researchers observed the effects of merely mentioning a beloved character before making a food choice.

During the study, kids ages 6 to 12 were given the choice between apple fries and French fries during lunch each day. On the intervention days, before being asked for their selection, the kids were shown 6 pictures of admirable heroes (including Batman) and 6 pictures of less admirable figures (such as famous villains) and asked whether each icon would order apple fries or French fries.

The results showed that the children generally associated heroes with apple fries, which were the ‘better’ option. On typical days without any priming, only 9.1% of kids chose apple fries, but on the day that kids were primed with these admirable role models, 45.5% chose apple slices! The kids who consistently associated heroes with healthiness had the strongest response: those who thought that all 6 heroes would order apple fries were 62.5% more likely to order apple fries than the other children.

Take-Home Tips for You to Try

  1. Placing stickers of beloved characters (like Elmo) on apples nearly doubled their selection.  Try placing stickers on the healthiest food options so kids will associate them with familiar icons.
  2. Asking what foods iconic heroes would eat led almost a third of kids to switch to the healthier choice of apple fries. Take the time to learn about kids’ personal heroes and popular icons for their age range, and then ask what those personal heroes would eat before presenting food options.


Kelsey Gatto, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs


Wansink, B., Just, D. R., & Payne, C. R. (2012). “Can branding improve school Lunches?” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 166(10), 967-968. (doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2012.999)

Wansink, B., Shimizu, M., & Camps, C. (2012). “What would Batman eat?: Priming children to make healthier fast food choices.” Pediatric Obesity, 7(2): 121-123. (doi: 10.1111/j.2047-6310.2011.00003.x)