A bowl of sugary cereal beside a box with a brightly decorated mascot and Saturday morning cartoons is a scene that holds a special place in many of my childhood memories. The colorful characters with a sugar-fueled enthusiasm for breakfast were always part of what drew us to our favorite cereals, but some experts say that’s exactly the problem.
In 2016, the government of Chile implemented regulations on the packaging (and advertising) of certain food products marketed to children. This is where the brand mascots we’ve come to recognize as synonymous with our favorite cereals—Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger—are forced to take an early retirement. But, before we get to that, and what it could mean for cereal boxes in the United States, it’s important to understand why these mascots are getting the boot abroad.
It’s not children themselves who are buying the cereals, right? It’s the parents who decide what to purchase, and it’s hard to imagine that I had any real say over my mom’s grocery purchases growing up. On the other hand, when I think back to my colorful morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles, I realize how unlikely it is that she was buying those because she wanted them.
“It’s the kids who see them on TV, who see them in ads, and tell the parents,” says Dr. Barry M. Popkin, professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and one of the health experts who helped create the law that has been implemented in Chile. “If you’ll notice, children’s cereals are usually placed lower on shelves; that’s so the kids can see them.”
Targeted marketing toward children is actually the root cause of what the Chilean government sees as the problem: that children are consuming an excess of added sugars. The ban on mascots is one intervention that the government hopes will have a positive effect on the nation’s health.
You might be thinking, “Okay, so kids eat too much sugar. Why not just teach kids better nutrition habits?” The problem isn’t necessarily a lack of understanding: Kids and their parents likely already know what balanced and healthy eating looks like, but kids can’t even enjoy their favorite shows without being bombarded with imagery that tells them they need to purchase a particular brand of cereal.
Popkin points out that it wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that marketing and promotions for cereal really took off, and prior to that, most cereal didn’t have as much added sugar in the first place. Combine all that with the rise of cereal box prizes and kids were fully drawn in, begging parents to buy more and more sugary products.
Other Latin American countries, such as Mexico, have followed Chile’s example. Though it has taken some time since the law was passed in 2018, Mexico’s government has not taken these policy changes lightly. The country’s consumer protection agency recently seized 380,000 boxes of Corn Flakes, Special K and other Kellogg’s cereals because it claimed the boxes had cartoons on them and did not follow the correct nutritional labeling standards.
“Kellogg was the first food company in Mexico to include nutritional guides on its products,” a spokesperson for Kellogg wrote via email. “Kellogg will continue to play a key role in fulfilling Mexico’s important health objectives… In fact, after discussions with the Government, we are now shipping further revised product. We will continue to act in a manner to avoid adverse action by the government.”
The law passed in Chile has elements that put the spotlight on food manufacturers and their practices of targeting children specifically. Dr. Camila Corvalán of the University of Chile’s Institute of Nutrition and Food Technology breaks down Chile’s law into four parts:
- Foods or beverages containing beyond a certain level of sugar, sodium, saturated fat, or calories must have a warning label on the packaging that identifies the excess.
- Products with the warning label are prohibited from using any licensed or brand character, toy or giveaway, or child-targeted imagery.
- Products with the warning labels cannot be advertised on TV or on websites aimed at children under 14 years old. (This restriction would later be expanded to cover all TV between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. as well as movie theaters.)
- The law also limits the availability of unhealthy foods at preschool and school settings.
Popkin notes that countries outside of Latin America have adopted or are working to pass similar restrictions (the U.K. and India, for example), but none as broad as what has been implemented in Chile.
For cereal manufacturers, the laws in Chile and Mexico have forced some change. Sylvain Darnil, Vice-President of Cereal Partners for Latin America & the Caribbeans for Nestlé & General Mills, explained in an email that while long-term sales in the cereal category were not affected, Chile’s law did lead to the creation of a line of “Fitness” cereals and organic versions of existing brands like Chocapic. These new products did not need the warning labels because they met the standards put forward in Chile’s law, and no warning label means they’re free to show the mascots on the box.
Darnil also noted that although the warning labels were initially effective in nudging consumers toward “healthier” options, many returned to “old habits” eventually. The same could be said of the manufacturers, who pivoted products only to wind up supporting their “iconic original recipes.”
The cause for this flip flopping? The labels might have been too broadly applied. Darnil writes, “We believe that the reason is that the minimum thresholds imposed by the Chilean government were so strict that approximately 95% of the products on-shelf displayed warning messages, effectively hampering consumers to move to slightly better options in terms of sugar, sodium or fat content.”
A 2019 study published in The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity used a focus group of mothers with young children to evaluate the impact of Chile’s law one year after its implementation. The study found that younger children have had positive responses to the changes in packaging. The report concludes these younger children “have become promoters of change in their families. Many mothers also expressed that they perceived an important shift toward healthier eating, which may lead to a change in eating social norms.” This was a qualitative study; future research will likely be able to determine the effects of the law on a more quantitative level. Until then, Lucky the Leprechaun and Sonny the Cuckoo Bird are probably safe from elimination here in the US.
In a perfect world, health experts would not be fighting to eliminate playful mascots from cereal packaging. Rather, manufacturers of cereal and other consumer packaged goods would already be selling products that meet the nutritional needs of the kids they target in their advertising, removing excess sugar and fat. But two years into a pandemic that also contributed to the increase in obesity numbers, I think we all recognize that the perfect solution hasn’t been found yet.