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In 1995, Kraft expanded its line of packaged kids’ lunch combinations to include pizza-themed Lunchables despite negative reviews from parents who’d taste-tested the product. They found the application of cold pizza sauce, cold meat, and cold shredded cheese on cold crusts both unappetizing and incongruous with the steaming, oozy slices they associated with the word pizza. Within a year, though, sales of the portable, build-it-yourself lunches had reached $150 million, and pizza Lunchables accounted for a quarter of the Lunchable brand’s total volume. Last year, the brand’s dollar sales reached $569 million.
Every children’s food manufacturer worth its salt knows that if the target market doesn't love a product, it will languish on shelves. Numerous studies have shown that children, and even toddlers, exact increasing influence over a family's food purchases. Researchers in Austria inconspicuously observed 178 parents shopping with their children and found that twice as many purchases in supermarkets were triggered by children than their parents are aware of. According to a report by market researcher Packaged Facts, kids between 3 and 11 years old collectively wielded $18 billion in purchasing power in 2005.
Unsurprisingly, it’s easiest to test foods on kids who are old enough to read and write about what they’re eating. For these children, ages 7 and older, researchers like those at Northland Sensory Insights, a consumer research facility in Northbrook, Ill., often use what are known formally as “verbal hedonic” scales, which incorporate age-appropriate language and are used in combination with pictorial scales (more on which below). About 25 years ago researchers conceived of the idea of using child-friendly colloquialisms on verbal hedonic scales, and a popular scale emerged in the late ’80s that included the phrases “super good” and super bad.” This scale has been mostly abandoned, since “super bad” can now have a very different meaning. Instead, Northland has forsaken efforts to sound hip and now uses the much more straightforward “dislike very much” and “like very much” on tests administered to elementary- and middle-school kids on computers.