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Branding against obesity: Do cartoon characters contribute to the pandemic?

Whilst some prefer to keep their work and home life separate, as designers we can never truly leave our creative mind-set behind. For the most part, this just means we can be a little tricky to shop with, as by knowing most of the brands and packaging, we also know how they’re trying to appeal to their audience. This is why when we heard of Jamie Oliver’s campaign to remove cartoon characters from junk food packages, it gave us food for thought; are cartoon characters on junk food packages a fun and harmless way of marketing, or are they attracting people toward unhealthier foods and contributing to the adolescent obesity crisis?

Putting a brand to a business is like putting a name to a face. It brings everything your company does together and gives it life, character and purpose. For businesses trying to appeal to a younger market, this character can be literal, with Tony the Tiger perhaps being one of the most famous. As the face of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes for almost 70 years, Tony has been given a family, a “Tonymobile”, a place on the Advertising Walk of Fame and is also accredited with loving reading and sport, and being 6ft 3.

Whilst adults may be a little sceptical as to how an animated tiger has achieved so much eating nothing but Frosties for 64 years, to children this becomes key; they want the strong, sporting prowess, they want to replicate the signature ‘grrr’ in ‘great’, and all of this is portrayed as readily available through a bowl of cereal. This in itself is not an unethical advertising technique - just about every product sells itself by associating with a favourable goal or quality - however the problem comes when this goal or quality is far removed from what the product actually achieves; whilst Kellogg’s have added more vitamins and minerals, the reality is a bowl of Frosties is far from any athlete’s diet.

Part of the argument for the ban is that products high in fat, sugar or salt practically sell themselves to children without the need for advertising. Frosted Flakes originally began as essentially just flakes, and only put on their sugary-coating to compete against rival brand, Sugar Crisp. Whilst this worked wonders at the time, it wasn’t long before it faced the same competition. Not being able to add any more sugar, Kellogg’s adopted the friendly, human-like tiger to connect with audiences and make consumers feel a bit better about their purchase.

Tony has stood the test of time far better than the addition of sugar, and whilst the proposed ban may make him a little hot under the collar, his sporty persona is just another of his nine lives. If Kellogg’s were to lose its mascot, it would undoubtedly lose a considerable amount of revenue. Without Tony, the only feature the brand would be able to rely on was their sugar, and as pressure mounts on brands to produce healthier products, the company may not even have that. Even the brand’s signature slogan, “They’re gr-r-eat”, would lose its impact; with no a tiger to growl out the catchphrase, it may as well be “They’re mediocre”.

It’s fair to say cartoon characters are useful in marketing a product. To say an over-sized tiger in a bandana is responsible for the adolescent obesity pandemic is a little more far-fetched. Whilst it is important brands take responsibility for the impact of their product, there is no amount of responsible branding that can encourage basic common sense. If consumers want copious amounts of what’s bad for them, they’ll buy it – just look at cigarette packaging. Do we have to resort to displaying the effects of obesity on junk food packaging? Suddenly Tony doesn’t look so bad.