About This Project
I am evaluating whether including an inexpensive toy with a smaller-sized meal, but not with the regular-sized version, will incentivize children to choose the smaller-sized meal at a restaurant, even among children with overweight and obesity. It is important to explore innovative options for reducing childhood overweight and obesity, including food marketing tactics that may have contributed to the pandemic in the first place.
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What is the context of this research?
As we see a rise in childhood obesity, researchers started investigating food marketing tactics that may have contributed to the pandemic. For example, toy premiums in children’s meals (e.g., McDonald’s Happy Meals) effectively motivate children to visit fast food restaurants. At the same time, children’s meal bundles have undergone scrutiny for high energy density.
In the present research, we asked whether toy giveaways (premiums) could be used to incentivize children to choose a smaller-sized meal. We build on extant research in arguing that even highly different stimuli such as food and toys share a common physiological basis, hence allowing their behavioral substitution.
What is the significance of this project?
Related, two recent systematic reviews found character endorsers (e.g., McDonald’s Ronald McDonald) considerably increase children’s liking and preference for energy-dense foods. These tactics’ popularity among food marketers and meal bundle’s link to overweight and obesity have generated suspicions that toy premiums have incentivized over-consumption, even encouraging legal action. The effects of food marketing tactics on children are especially worrisome because they likely establish and reinforce long-lasting food choice patterns.
By utilizing existing food marketing tactics, we engage with tools already available in the restaurant industry. This experiment has implications for general public health and for marketers that are seeking to promote healthier menu options.
What are the goals of the project?
At present, there is no experimental evidence evaluating the potential reinforcing value of toys in smaller-sized meal choice. The goal of this project is to see what children choose when they are presented with a large meal portion with no toy and a small meal portion with a toy. Our hypothesis is that when given the choice, children will pick the small meal portion with a toy. Additionally, recent research showed that food cues are more attention-grabbing in individuals with obesity and that overweight individuals are more susceptible to larger portion sizes. We would like to understand if body mass index (BMI) will affect the choice of the smaller-sized meal. Finally, we hope to publish this research.
The first half of the budget is required to complete the analysis of the behavioral and psychometric data, collected this past summer, 2015, The data is waiting to be entered, processed and analyzed with the funds received. A professional copy editor will also be hired to polish the final paper. Past completing the research, it is equally important to make sure that the research reaches those who have the power to use the knowledge gained to make a positive change. Especially for research concerning health, specifically childhood overweight and obesity, no good will come of interesting findings that gather dust on a shelf! If our hypothesis is correct and we find from the data that toy incentives lead children towards smaller food portions, the second half of the budget help to disseminate our findings (e.g., presentations of the findings at the major psychology and consumer research conferences in the form of posters and/or talks as well as publicity fees to approach the media).
The research was conducted in the field with actual Happy Meals, across time (i.e., across two repeated trials) and in regard to BMI. Additional work is needed to finalize the paper through additional data analysis and to disseminate these important findings to the general public and corporations with the power to make a positive change.
This experiment follows the work of Dr. Martin Reimann, who is the mentor on this project.
Page illustration by Emily Flake for The Boston Globe.
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