Nick Targeted in Fight Over Food Marketing Guidelines

Kiddie net defends itself, citing anti-obesity programs like Birdseye

Now that President Obama has been re-elected, a fight in Washington is heating up again over the effect of food marketing guidelines on curbing childhood obesity. Targeting Nickelodeon, the Food Marketing Workgroup,

a coalition of more than 80 health groups and nutritionists, is hoping to put pressure on the kiddie net and its parent company Viacom to adopt nutrition guidelines for foods marketed to children, especially those foods that license Nick characters like Sponge Bob.

The fight over whether the government should regulate food ads targeting children has been fought bitterly, and food manufacturers have tightened self-regulation to keep such proposals in draft stage. But nutritionists and health groups haven't given up.

The FMW, led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has been keeping close tabs on the business and particularly Nickelodeon, which places about 25 percent of the ads during children's programming, including recent ads for Cocoa Puffs, Air Heads candies, Chuck E.Cheese's, Fruit Roll-Ups, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Pez candy, Cheese Nips crackers and popsicles.

"Nickelodeon lags behind the efforts of other children's entertainment companies," noted the group in a letter sent Monday to Viacom president and CEO Philippe Dauman and Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami, referring to Disney and Ion Media, both of which adopted standards for food marketing to children.

The letter is just the start of a broader campaign targeting Nick, that includes Facebook posts and ads, print ads in ad and media publications, and a letter writing campaign from concerned parents. CSPI is also in the process of conducting a study about food advertising targeting children.

"[Nick] will be hearing from a lot of parents over the next couple of months that responsible programming means responsible advertising. If in the middle of Dora the Explorer, there are ads for Cocoa Puffs or Air Heads candy, the parent can't feel as good about the programming," said Margo Wootan, CSPI's director. 

At the very minimum, the FMW suggested Nickelodeon should follow the standards set by the food industry's self-regulatory group, the Better Business Bureau's Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. (It was the CFBAI's new standards that averted the government's proposal to set voluntary federal food marketing guidelines.)

But that makes no sense to Nickelodeon, especially since 80 percent of the food companies marketing to children have adopted the CFBAI's standards, encompassing the vast majority of Nick's advertisers.

"We have proven our commitment over and over, and the vast majority of our advertisers have already signed on to the CFBAI pledge," Nick said in a statement.

Nick outlined several programs it adopted to fight childhood obesity, including working with Michelle Obama's Let's Move program and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The company also encouraged kids to eat vegetables via a marketing partnership with Birdseye that ran this summer and fall. "No entertainment brand has worked as comprehensively and with more organizations dedicated to fighting childrhood obesity over the past decade than Nickelodeon," said the company, noting it donates 10 percent of its airtime to health and wellness messaging.

That's still not enough for the FMW, which wrote that the programs are "insufficient" to counter the problem. "Your PSAs, philanthropic activities, and partnerships with children's groups do not counterbalance the effect of Nickelodeon's core business and children's exposure to unhealthy food marketing," the FMW said.

With both sides digging in, the food fight is far from over.