Nickelodeon, Kellogg Targeted in Suit to Stop Junk Food Marketing to Kids

January 19, 2006

Parents and advocacy groups are filing suit against Viacom’s Nickelodeon media outlets and snack and cereal giant Kellogg to stop them from marketing junk food to young children.

The plaintiffs maintain that these two companies are directly harming kids’ health because, the groups contend, the majority of food products they market to children are high in sugar, saturated and trans fat, or salt, or almost devoid of nutrients. They will ask a Massachusetts court to enjoin the companies from marketing junk foods to audiences where 15 percent or more of the audience is under age eight, and to cease marketing junk foods through web sites, toy giveaways, contests, and other techniques aimed at that age group.

The plaintiffs are the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and two Massachusetts parents, Sherri Carlson of Wakefield, Mass. and Andrew Leong of Brookline, Mass.

The Massachusetts statute the plaintiffs are suing under provides for damages of $25 per violation of unfair or deceptive advertising. In this case, a violation would be occur each time that a Massachusetts child sees an ad for a junk food on Nickelodeon, sees a Kellogg junk-food ad on that or another network, or sees Kellogg junk-food packaging that bears SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, or other cartoon characters.

If the companies go to trial and are found liable, the verdict could be in the billions of dollars, CSPI’s attorneys say, although they also say the plaintiffs would settle for a commitment from the companies to change their marketing practices.

“Nickelodeon and Kellogg engage in business practices that literally sicken our children,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Their marketing tactics are designed to convince kids that everything they hear from their parents about food is wrong. It’s a multimedia brainwashing and re-education campaign—and a disease-promoting one at that. And parents are fed up.”

“As a parent, I do my best to get my kids to eat healthy foods,” said Sherri Carlson, a plaintiff and mother of three. “But then they turn on Nickelodeon and see all those enticing junk-food ads. Adding insult to injury, we enter the grocery store and see our beloved Nick characters plastered on all those junky snacks and cereals. This irresponsible marketing to young children undermines my efforts as a parent and must be stopped.”

This past fall, CSPI analyzed food advertising on Nickelodeon’s televised programming and in Nickelodeon magazine and marketing on food packaging that bears Nickelodeon characters. CSPI also analyzed Kellogg’s Saturday-morning television advertisements, ads in kid-targeted magazines, on-package marketing, and other media. Nickelodeon’s programming is aimed at kids aged 2 to 11, according to company documents, and the Nick Jr. block of programming is aimed at kids aged 2 to 5.

Of 168 ads for food that appeared on Nickelodeon during CSPI’s review, CSPI says 88 percent were for foods of poor nutritional quality. The September and October issues of Nickelodeon magazine contained seven full-page food ads, all of which were for junk foods. Of 15 foods bearing Nickelodeon characters at a Washington, D.C., supermarket, 60 percent were junk foods, including Fairly Odd Parents Orange & Creme Miniatures Kit Kat bars and SpongeBob SquarePants Wild Bubble Berry Pop-Tarts.

CSPI also reviewed 27.5 hours of Saturday-morning programming to analyze Kellogg marketing. CSPI said it found 54 Kellogg ads, 98 percent of them for nutritionally poor foods. Of 80 Kellogg foods found in the supermarket with kid-friendly packaging, 84 percent were for nutritionally poor foods, according to the group. CSPI found 21 kid-friendly web sites for Kellogg products, all of which highlighted junk foods. Of 92 child-oriented branded items Kellogg had for sale on the web, 82 percent had a logo or mascot from a junk-food brand.

“The thrust of Nickelodeon’s and Kellogg’s likely defense will be to blame parents, since, after all, parents ultimately are responsible for their kids’ diets,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “But then again, Kellogg and Nick aren’t directing their marketing messages at parents; they’re going right behind parents’ backs. Parents are ultimately responsible for making sure their young kids don’t get hit by cars. But if someone’s recklessly driving around your neighborhood at 80 miles an hour, you’re going to want to stop them.”

“For over thirty years, public health advocates have urged companies to stop marketing junk food to children,” said Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “Even as rates of childhood obesity have soared, neither Viacom nor Kellogg has listened. We can no longer stand by as our children’s health is sacrificed for corporate profits.”

The New York Times reported that Kellogg responded, saying it had a “longstanding commitment to marketing in a responsible manner.”

“We will also continue to educate and inform consumers of all ages about the importance of both balanced nutrition and physical activity in maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” said a spokeswoman.

A Viacom spokesman defended Nickelodeon, telling the Times that the company had recently taken steps to address the problem of childhood obesity including licensing SpongeBob, Dora the Explorer and characters from LazyTown for use on packages baby carrots and SpongeBob for spinach.

But the plaintiffs are not impressed.

“In any other sphere of American life it would be considered creepy and predatory for adults to propose commercial transactions to toddlers and young children,” said Jacobson. “Yet companies like Kellogg, Nickelodeon, and others have been doing it with impunity, and government has done nothing for decades. This litigation is truly a last resort—and vitally important to children’s health.”

Sources: CSPI, N.Y. Times

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