For nutritionists, when it comes to advertising junk food to kids, Nickelodeon is public enemy No. 1. Or, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest put it in a full-page ad, "Wanted."
The ad is appearing Friday in The Hollywood Reporter (Adweek's sister publication), and was timed to run just days before Viacom holds its annual shareholders meeting March 21 in Hollywood, Calif. It pictures SpongeBob SquarePants as an outlaw, complete with face stubble. "SpongeBob may be armed with nutritionally dangerous foods," the ad says.
Food ads that CSPI has monitored on Nick programming, websites and apps include Cocoa Puffs, Air Heads candies and Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants. Nick characters have been associated with brands like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Pez candy and Fruit Roll-Ups. Unilever's Popsicles are even made in the shape of SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer.
This isn't the first time the CSPI has set its sites on Nick. CSPI has kept up a relentless attack on the kiddie net. In December, CSPI and 80 health groups and nutritionists urged the network to adopt nutrition guidelines similar to those adopted by Disney and Ion Media's Quobo.
"Nickelodeon is lagging behind companies like Disney when it comes to supporting parents and protecting kids from junk-food marketing," said Margo Wootan, CSPI's nutrition policy director and head of the Food Marketing Workgroup, a coalition of dozen of organizations pushing the government to adopt stricter guidelines for marketing food to children. "Nickelodeon prizes itself on responsible programming for children, but what about its advertising?" Wootan asked.
Although CSPI holds Disney up as a paragon of nutrition marketing virtue, Disney isn't all Snow White when it comes to marketing junk food to kids and CSPI knows it. The group has also turned up the heat on the mouse house, most recently last October for licensing its characters to market candy to children for "special occasions" like Halloween and Valentine's Day. Disney characters from movies and its other franchises have graced the packages of Kraft Mac & Cheese, Cheez-It, Popsicles and Fruit Snacks. CSPI's Wootan called the loophole big enough for "Cinderella to drive her carriage through."
The FMW's efforts were stalled last year following a successful lobbying effort by food advertisers. Not giving up, the group changed tactics by targeting specific companies like Nick using ads, letters and a website petition.
The ad was sponsored by Berkeley Media Studies Group, Center for Digital Democracy, Children Now, Prevention Institute, and Voices for America's Children. Funding for the ad was provided by The California Endowment.
Nickelodeon said it felt CSPI's singling out of the network was unfair given its internal anti-obesity programs. "Though our primary responsibility is to make the highest quality content in the world for kids, no entertainment brand has worked as comprehensively or with more organizations dedicated to fighting childhood obesity than Nickelodeon," said a network representative in a statement. "In fact, virtually all of our advertisers have signed on to the CFBAI pledge, and we will continue to work with them and other marketers who strive to make meaningful progress on this issue."
As a witness for the defense, the rep also pointed to first lady Michelle Obama, who has been outspoken on the subject of childhood obesity and praised Nick's involvement in a Birds Eye vegetables marketing campaign featuring iCarly.