Despite Pledges, Nickelodeon Still Marketing Nutritionally Poor Food


WASHINGTON—Despite its public statements and pledges to help combat childhood obesity, the overwhelming majority of foods marketed by the children's media giant Nickelodeon are of poor nutritional quality, according to an analysis conducted by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

CSPI first analyzed Nickelodeon food marketing in 2005, and found that 88 percent of foods marketed to children were nutritionally poor. Despite the threat of litigation, an industry-wide self regulatory initiative, and new interest in food marketing on the part of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission, the company has improved its practices only marginally: In 2008, 79 percent of the foods it markets to children are foods like sugary cereal, candy, sugary drinks with little or no fruit juice, and fast food. And the percentage of food packages sporting Viacom characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, and Shrek contain increasingly unhealthy foods.

Today Nickelodeon executive Marva Smalls will defend its practices in testimony before a joint Senate Appropriations subcommittee meeting convened by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Sam Brownback (R-KS). In 2005 Smalls told the Federal Trade Commission that Nick would use its characters to promote spinach, oranges, and other health foods, but advertisements for those foods are totally absent from the company’s airwaves and magazine ads.

"Nickelodeon is something of a pariah in that they haven’t set any basic nutrition standards for the foods it will expose children to via its television or magazine advertising or its licensed characters," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "There is literally no food, no matter how junky, that Nickelodeon won’t advertise on its airwaves or in its magazine or slap one of its characters on. Just relying on the food industry’s own initiative to improve practices has only made a small difference at Nick."

CSPI reviewed 28 hours of children’s television programming on Nickelodeon, during which 819 commercials and public service announcements were shown. Of the 185 food ads, 177 had nutrition information available, and 138, or 78 percent, of those were for foods of poor nutritional quality, including Apple Jacks, Cookie Crisp cereal, Airhead candy, artificial fruit-flavored snacks, and Chuck E. Cheese's, where 89 percent of its menu items are nutritionally poor. Some of the healthier foods advertised included yogurts and pasta.

Similarly, 77 percent, or 24 of 31 food ads published in Nickelodeon magazine were for junk foods like SweetTarts, Gummy Bugs, Laffy Taffy, Yogos Bits, or Burger King meals. During the study period, three fast-food restaurants were running tie-ins with Viacom, Nickelodeon's corporate parent: McDonald's with The Spiderwick Chronicles, Subway with The Naked Brothers Band, and Chuck E. Cheese's with Bee Movie.

In 2006, the Council of Better Business Bureaus convened 10 major food companies to join a Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in which companies pledge to shift their advertising and marketing to healthier foods. Today Dannon will announce that it is joining the initiative, bringing the Initiative's ranks to 15 major food companies, including Coca-Cola, Nestle, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald's, and Unilever. The pledges, which each have different nutrition standards and marketing policies, have yet to take full effect but should by the end of 2008.

"Despite the sky-high rates of childhood obesity, Nickelodeon continues to bombard children with junk-food marketing," said Wootan. "Media companies such as Nick are gatekeepers, and should set their own standards for marketing food to children."

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