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Food makers target kids' sense of cool

By JOAN VERDON
Friday, June 23, 2006

Hey, kids, want some cool water?

We're not talking temperature here. We're talking bottled water endorsed by Spider-Man, the Bratz dolls or Disney characters.

Licensed kids' characters and brands, long used to drive sales of everything from Happy Meals to toys and children's clothing, are on a health kick. As schools and parents react to reports of the growing childhood obesity crisis by shunning sodas and high-calorie snacks, entertainment brands such as Disney and Sesame Street are getting choosier about the foods and drinks their characters endorse.

In July, bottles of purified water decorated with Nemo -- Disney's lovable lost fish -- from the animated film "Finding Nemo" -- will hit stores, along with reduced-calorie fruit drinks featuring characters from Disney's current hit, "Cars." This fall, shoppers will see Sesame Street's Grover, Cookie Monster, and Elmo on cans of Del Monte peas, corn and green beans.

"Good-for-you" marketing was generating a healthy buzz at this year's Licensing International show at the Jacob Javits Center in New York, which ended Thursday. Manufacturers last year paid nearly $6 billion in royalties to put cartoon characters, brand names and other licensed properties on their goods.

"There's been some concern on the part of the licensors about putting their characters on what's deemed to be unhealthy foods," said Charles Riotto, president of the Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association. "So there is a trend this year to align kids' characters with things like bottled water and healthy foods."

Riotto's been sending his own 8-year-old off to school lately with "Sponge Bob carrots" in his lunch box -- plastic bags of mini-carrots decorated with the popular Nickelodeoncharacter.

Cartoon characters haven't completely changed their endorsement habits. Stroll through the supermarket and you'll still see Scooby-Doo on sacks of sugary cookies, Nemo on boxes of ice cream treats, and Superman hawking high-calorie colas. But brand managers say they are checking fat and calorie content more carefully when making new licensing deals.

The entertainment properties and manufacturers backing this trend say the star power of Spider-Man and Sponge Bob will get kids to drink more water and eat more vegetables.

But why can't parents just put a plain bottle of water in the lunch box?

"It's not cool," said Ron Cohen, president of Kids Only Inc., which announced deals to distribute Spider-Man, Scooby-Doo and Bratz branded bottled water at the licensing show.

"Kids have to feel cool," Cohen said. "They want to take something out of their lunch box and not feel embarrassed about it."

Cohen, whose company sells plastic kids' furniture and accessories to mass-market chains such as Wal-Mart, is making his first foray into branded water. "I was very intrigued with water," he said. "It's a $14 billion category, with over 700 brands on the market, and there's never been a brand of water for children," he said. "I saw that opportunity, and felt we could address the issue of childhood obesity by offering the healthiest drink in the world."

Branded water for kids will cost more, but Cohen said his prices will be "retail competitive to flavored water." A six-pack of 16-ounce branded bottles will cost about $3.99, he said.

Executives for Del Monte Foods and Sesame Workshop unveiled their healthy foods partnership at the licensing show Wednesday.

"If anyone can encourage children to eat their fruits and vegetables, it is Elmo, along with his friends Cookie Monster and Grover," said Apu Moody, managing director of Del Monte brands. Specially labeled cans of peas, corn and beans will arrive in supermarkets in September.

A Sesame Workshop study in 2003 found that preschoolers ate 28 percent more broccoli if it was branded with a Sesame Street character. Moody said he is certain Grover and Elmo will get kids to clamor for canned vegetables. "As a parent, I see it whenever I go shopping anything with a character draws their attention," he said.

Masterfoods USA in Hackettstown, the maker of such sweets as M&M and Starburst candies and Milky Way bars, is expanding its offerings of flavored reduced-fat milk drinks with candy themes to respond to soda bans in schools.

"It's the marketing of soda applied to a healthy drink," a Masterfoods spokeswoman said. The labels on the company's Milky Way and Three Musketeers milk drinks don't look that healthy, with the candy brand names in large print, but moms who look at the small print will see the reassuring words "reduced fat."

Crayola, the well-known brand name used by crayon manufacturer Binney & Smith, also has two new licenses geared toward health-conscious parents. A beverage company, Advanced H2O, has licensed the Crayola brand name for a line of brightly colored flavored vitamin water for kids called Crayola Color Coolerz. It also has signed a deal with Breyers for Crayola Blenders yogurts -- reduced-calorie, fruit-flavored yogurts.

Companies announcing "good-for-you" licensing deals at the show this year found an added bonus. In an industry that debates endlessly about whether a cartoon character's "brand equity" would be hurt by having the character appear on boxer shorts or beach towels, bottled water deals are seen as a can't-lose proposition.

"Anything that helps kids drink more water is a good thing," said Jim Silver, editor of Toy Wishes magazine, as he toured the show.

 

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