National Geographic Deceives Parents, Says CSPI


Ad-Free Samples of National Geographic Kids Deceptive, Group Tells FTC

December 1, 2004

Sample issues of National Geographic Kids magazine give the impression that the magazine is advertising-free, but the real thing is chock full of ads for junk food and other products, according to a complaint filed today with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The sample issues are used in direct-mail solicitations aimed at potential new subscribers. But the complaint, filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), alleges that the venerable National Geographic Society is deceiving parents who wouldn’t expect that fully one-third of the publication’s pages are filled with ads for products that promote obesity and sedentary lifestyles.

Last July, CSPI first raised concerns about junk food advertising in National Geographic Kids. CSPI reviewed the content of 17 issues and found 51 junk-food ads, including ads for Twinkies, M&Ms, Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, Hostess Cup Cakes, and Xtreme Jell-O Pudding Sticks. One mock cover of National Geographic Kids was an ad for the fast-food chain Arby’s. So when CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson received an ad-free issue of the magazine in his mailbox, he was surprised.

“The ‘sample issue’ I received was certainly free of advertising, so for a split second I thought that National Geographic might have had a change of heart about peddling junk food to kids,” Jacobson said. “I regret that it hasn’t. And I regret that National Geographic is making matters much worse by deceiving parents with this disgusting bait and switch.”

CSPI is asking the FTC to block National Geographic from distributing ad-free sample issues of National Geographic Kids so long as the publication itself contains advertising. The complaint also asks the FTC to require National Geographic to offer refunds to all current subscribers to National Geographic Kids.

According to the complaint, parents’ postings on Amazon and Epinions express surprise over the amount of advertising in National Geographic Kids. One poster wrote that it “seems like another vehicle attempting to get my son to buy products,” and that it is “awful.” Another wrote that “the advertising is shameful and irresponsible ... in an age when we are preoccupied by the health of our children, particularly their diet.” Another wondered how National Geographic could have “gone so wrong, treating children like nothing more than little consumers,” calling it “truly ugly.”

CSPI told the National Geographic Society in July that some of its junk food ads were especially unseemly for a magazine ostensibly devoted, in part, to appreciation of the animal kingdom: Ads for Hostess Cup Cakes and Twinkies actually depict a duck being hit by a train and a beaver being crushed by a falling object. In addition to ads for junk foods, National Geographic Kids contains ads for DVDs, television shows, and video games—all products that discourage physical activity and, like junk foods, help fuel childhood obesity.

National Geographic Kids has included advertisements since its launch in 2002. A predecessor publication, National Geographic World, was ad-free from its launch in 1975 until mid-2002, when ads began appearing. According to the National Geographic Kids media kit, ads in the publication range in price from $31,825 to nearly $169,000. Many other kids’ magazines, such as Ranger Rick or My Big Backyard, succeed without advertising revenue though.

“Kids already get exposed to enough junk-food marketing,” Jacobson said. “Why shell out $17.95 to expose them to even more?”

 

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