How to Sell Kids on Vegetables

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Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

The same marketing techniques used to convince children to eat junk food are highly effective in promoting fruits and vegetables, a new study has found.

Researchers assigned 10 elementary schools to one of four groups. In the first, they posted vinyl banners around the salad bar depicting cartoon vegetable characters with “super powers.” In the second, they showed television cartoons of the characters. The third got both cartoons and banners, and a control group got no intervention. The study, in Pediatrics, went on for six weeks in 2013.

Compared to control schools, TV segments alone produced a statistically insignificant increase in vegetable consumption. But in schools decorated with the banners alone, 90.5 percent more students took vegetables. And where both the banners and the TV advertisements were used, the number of students taking vegetables increased by 239.2 percent.

“A lot of people have pushed back on this, saying marketing is evil,” said one of the authors, David R. Just, a professor of applied economics at Cornell. “But I have to disagree. It’s possible to use marketing techniques to do some good things.”

Putting such programs into practice, Dr. Just said, presents problems. “Schools are left to do their own marketing, and that’s not cost effective. These need to be national programs. McDonald’s is effective because you see their marketing everywhere.”