Opinion: The Marketing Society Forum - Are the days of using animated characters in ads over?

Which?, the campaigning consumer information service, has called for a tightening of the rules on the use of animated characters in ads, claiming that they promote unhealthy eating in children.


Animation has been used in advertising for decades, long before there was any hint of the obesity problem now facing adults and children in the UK.

The presence of animation has not played a part in the increase of obesity, and the removal of it would make little difference in solving this health challenge.

A child's journey toward obesity starts at an early age and in the home, so our focus should be on supporting parents to help their kids.

No parent wants an unhealthy child, and they make the choices about what products to buy. A ban on animated characters would be a distraction from where the priorities lie. Keep the characters, encourage them to support messages about balanced and healthy lifestyles and focus on where real differences can be made.


This debate, while well-intentioned, is out of date before it has begun. From January, all HFSS product advertising on children's channels will end. The rules have been set: owners of HFSS food brands will be talking to parents and children in adult airtime.

The question is not whether cartoon characters are an unsustainable creative device; it is what sort of conversation HFSS brands will be having with this audience in the future, and what part these characters will play.

The 'new conversation' is likely to revolve around the role of a brand in the healthy, balanced lifestyle of a child, and the brand's nostalgic appeal, evidenced by its childlike associations and values, and the ways in which the product itself has changed since the last conversation.

The unwritten social contract that underpins this conversation assumes the following: that consumers have full access to the information, which they do; that advertising is closely regulated, which it is; and that competitive forces are an incentive to good marketing citizenship, which they are.

There is a future for animated characters to talk about, say, the importance of breakfast. They are probably among our most powerful allies in the reduction of child obesity.


The days of branded characters should not be numbered if people really care about tackling the issue of overeating and fitness. Pressure from groups such as Which? misses the point.

It is not advertising or marketing that makes children or adults fat. Naturally, ads have an impact, but within a much wider framework of decision-taking. Parents told the government they would appreciate some help, and the codes were changed at the same time as action was taken on TV scheduling.

Cartoon and other characters belonging exclusively to the brand are helpful to bringing choice to parents and in maintaining a good, competitive and affordable shopping basket. We want children to eat a varied diet; we want children to be encouraged to exercise and have fun.

Those who want to ban all advertising to children, bring in 'white packaging' on food goods, and proclaim they have the unique answer to obesity, live in a very different universe from all other consumers.


This is a classic example of 'don't shoot the messenger, think about the message'. The debate, and potential regulations, should not surround the characters themselves, but rather the messages that they are conveying. The truth is that cartoon characters can just as easily be used to promote healthy-eating messages - and they should.

The challenge is to relate the characters back to the product benefits. Why not look at the way characters are used in other categories? Aquafresh teamed up with Dr Seuss to educate kids about dental hygiene, injecting fun into a normally onerous routine.

It's easy to blame those nasty sugar-coated ads brainwashing young minds into thinking that frosted flakes are cool because a cartoon tiger says so. But our children are what we feed them. The one group of people that can turn around the childhood obesity problem should be parents.

- The Marketing Society is the most influential network of senior marketers dedicated to championing marketing in the UK.


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