A crackdown on the use of children's cartoon characters to market food products is needed, says a watchdog.
Breakfast cereals were criticised by the report
A survey by Which? found 77% of 2,000 people believed using characters like Shrek and Scooby Doo on packs made it hard for parents to say no to children.
Many products are high in fat, salt and sugar, making the use of the characters irresponsible, it says.
It called for national standards. But food and advertising industries said they were working with the government.
Which? acknowledged that several manufacturers had taken steps to improve the nutritional quality of their foods and that some license holders whose characters are used to endorse products were reviewing their policies.
In addition to the 2,000 surveyed, Which? asked five focus groups of parents in London and Leeds what they thought.
Breakfast cereals came under particularly heavy criticism.
One parent said: "The kids don't care what the cereal is, it's who's on the cover."
Among the culprits named by the report was Nestlé's Golden Nuggets carrying a picture of Disney's Incredibles, which contains an extremely high amount of sugar.
Kellogg's also came under scrutiny for Frosties, which contains more salt and sugar than the Food Standards Agency recommends.
Some of Kellogg's' cereals include promotional offers linked to gadgets featuring branding from DreamWorks's Shark's Tail film.
While the parents acknowledged that they had a responsibility themselves to make sure their children eat healthily, many said they felt powerless against advertising ploys.
Nick Stace of Which? said: "Parents feel manipulated by these marketing practices.
"Too many characters loved by children are being used to promote foods high in fat, sugar and salt, leaving parents feeling powerless to say no."
Kellogg's said: "We are committed to responsibly marketing our brands and communicating their intrinsic qualities so that our customers can make informed choices.
"Ultimately, parental understanding and direction are key to ensuring that proper food choices are made for the entire family."
Nestle said: "Sponsorships, including tie-ups with cartoon characters, must meet our stringent guidelines.
"We work closely with industry and government bodies and this includes the review of our own and industry practices and guidelines in this area."
A spokeswoman from the Food Advertising Unit said it was an area likely to be looked at in a government review of the advertising codes.
The government's recent White Paper on public health recommended restrictions on advertising and promotion to children of foods and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar.
It envisages that this can be achieved through voluntary initiatives with the food industry, advertisers and consumer groups.
If this has not succeeded by early 2007, it has pledged to take further action through existing or new laws.
The Food Standards Agency said it was currently looking at a nutrient profiling model that could be used to support the identification of healthier choices for children.
If the manufacturers really believe that parents should give their children the best foods, why don't they make the foods better (e.g. less sugar and salt etc!) The cartoons would still sell the more healthy product!
Chris O'Hanlon, Finland
In response to Darren from Manchester's comment that we should ban all advertising aimed at under 16s because of pester power, isn't 16 a bit of a high ban? I am 15 and most of the stuff I buy I buy with my own money. Most of my friends and I are health conscious to the extent we know what we should and shouldn't eat and try to stick to things that are good. The advertising that appeals to us is things that are low in calories and still yummy or products that are a new idea or recommended by our friends. We don't care about cartoons on boxes or who can or cannot recruit a celebrity and the majority of children over about 14 don't. As for taking cartoons off if the parents are too weak to refuse they'll always give in on something. Maybe they should admit their own fault instead of constantly blaming the media.
Rosie, Helston, Cornwall
Parenting is hard work, if you're going to take it seriously. If you cannot cope with 'pester power' with regard to breakfast cereals (for crying out loud!), I see a bleak future ahead for you and yours. It sounds to me as if people should make sure that they have grown up themselves before attempting to raise children.
Martin Treadwell, Oxford, England
You'd be hard pushed to find a breakfast cereal that doesn't have sugar and salt in! Breakfast can be so much more interesting and nutritious than a bowl of cereal - fruit and plain yoghurt, mushroom omelettes, pancakes or even soup. Be creative!
K, Guildford, UK
Why is it that we never see cartoon characters or free toys sold with fruit and vegetables? It must be because they think they know what is best for our children. It is a shame they cannot see through the huge profits they make and let sense take over from greed.
Karen Collings, Letchworth
Children have to be taught that no means no, and this is only possible if their parents can be firm with them. It has to be appreciated as soon as possible that we can't always get what we want.
Dave Tutssel, UK
Cartoon characters or not, check the nutritional information of your breakfast cereals and note the total carbohydrate content. All carbohydrates (simple and complex) are digested as sugars - starch (complex-carbohydrate) is simply two sugar molecules joined together and is digested as glucose. So, even that 'special' breakfast cereal, dieters love, is 75% sugar. These sugar-laden and nutritionally empty breakfast cereals are certainly not the healthiest start to the day.
Justin Barratt, St Albans
Poor parents, all victims of advertisers. I am sick of parents being allegedly 'dictated' to by their children - this extends to badly behaved children in public places (particularly pubs) misbehaving while their 'powerless' parents watch on. And pity those who attempt to intervene and incite the parents' wrath. If you're not responsible for your children and cannot manage them, you shouldn't have them. Means testing for prospective parents (IQ, essentially) would be a good step forward.
I explained the function of advertising to my children at a young age after they started saying that they "had to" have things they had seen on TV. They immediately latched on to the idea of advertising and soon became very indignant about obvious attempts to manipulate the family's buying habits.
Peter, Bucks, UK
Any form of legislation in this area is pointless unless we dictate that everything arrives in a grey carton labelled 'food'. Marketing departments will always use every legal means to promote what they call 'pester power'. As long as there's money to be made from exploiting children and their harassed parents, we can be sure the problem will remain.
Al, London, UK
Buy the packets. Tip contents of packets in bin. Fill packets with more suitable, healthy, content.
David Swales, Reading UK
It's a free market and everyone wants to promote their product as effectively as possible. However, those of us who work marketing fresh (healthy) unprocessed foods such as produce, dairy and meat, just can't come anywhere near the advertising budgets of the multi-nationals. Years of having profits eliminated by the supermarkets mean we have zero left to promote it to children and, therefore, the playing field is far from level. When we get the financial backing to introduce 'Incredibles Broccoli' or 'Shrek Bananas' then maybe we'll stand a chance and children's diets will improve.
Lorraine, St Albans, UK
What next a ban on George Clooney from doing Martini ads? A ban on Beckham promoting Pepsi? Do we really want the death of Honey Monster on our consciences? Perhaps if the kids were actually allowed to do some exercise, climb trees in the park and generally stop playing game consoles and watching DVDs because modern parents can't be bothered with parenting, that would be a start. Just think how bad Coco-Pops must have been in the 70s as they are now made with "real chocolate" but back then we actually went out and played games or did activities on a weekend with our parents
IH, West London
I'm not a parent so I don't know how easy this would be to implement, but why don't parents purchase the healthier non-branded product then give their children the extra money? In real terms, (assuming the healthier product cost less, which it probably would do), it wouldn't cost the parents more and their children could then eat the healthier product. At the same time they could learn the value of hard cash to buy sweets with - actually that would result in the same tooth decay...!
Surely the answer is simple - put toys in the healthy cereals! Besides, why should us adults miss out on the fun? We demand more toys!
Katie, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion
It's not a bad idea, but what about the cartoon characters created especially by the cereal companies? Honey Monster, the Coco-Pops monkey and the three pixie-things that advertise Rice Crispies spring to mind.
Cartoon characters on packaging make it hard for parents to say 'no'? I find that hard to believe. Parents need to take more control and responsibility instead of allowing their children to dictate what they buy. These so-called 'cartoon foods' are nothing but over processed rubbish full of sugar and chemical additives. It should be easy for parents to say 'no' by buying something so obviously unhealthy.
Catriona, Guelph, Canada
Having three young children, character promoted cereals are hard to avoid. We only allow these at the weekend; during the week it's a "proper, healthy" cereal or hunger to lunchtime. Online supermarket shopping is a great way to avoid the pleading for the "Shrek" box in the cereal aisle.
Bruce, Dunfermline, Scotland
Parents should be able to say no to their children, and the children should accept it. My son asks for all sorts of junk when we are shopping, I tell him no, and he accepts that. Again we are back to a blame culture where parents are not strong enough to control their children, and find it easier to blame someone else!
Tina, Ashford, Kent
A completely sensible idea that should have been thought of ages ago, that will no doubt be thoughtlessly denounced as 'nanny state' policy by the media...
Keith, United Kingdom
Why do so many parents feel 'powerless' to say no? They pay for the food and select which to put in the shopping trolley. Shouldn't they shoulder the responsibility to ensure their children get the nutrition they need? Regardless of which cartoon character is on the front of the box, my five-year-old son eats whichever cereal I buy him! In the end, he gave up badgering me because he knew his demands were being ignored.
I do not think it is the responsibility of a cereal company to make their boxes boring. I think it is the parents' responsibility to check the quality of the food they buy for their children. But then I am old fashioned.....
We should ban all advertising aimed at under-16-year-olds, children are an easily influenced group and companies that aim their advertising at kids know that pester power works.
I think that the parents should take more responsibility for their actions. A parent can and should say "no" to their child if it is not in the child's best interest. But the food industry should have some stronger regulations on the contents of cereals nutritional value. But the first and last line for the child's well being is the parent.
Ricky Cummins, Cary, North Carolina, United States
If these companies want to act responsibly why aren't cartoon characters used to market healthy foods such as fruit or healthy cereal? Ultimately though it is the parent who is responsible for the food a child eats. They are the ones who pay at the cash desk, not the child, so the child shouldn't have control over what the parent buys.
Alli, Manchester, UK
I don't think that removing Snap, Crackle and Pop or Tony the Tiger from advertising will make any difference - it should be the parents deciding on the nutritional benefit of each cereal for their kids - but then we do live in an age where kids seem to get what they want from parents, no matter what!
Baz Ricketts, Stourbridge, UK