Modest Improvement Not Sufficient, Given Kids’ Obesity Rates, Says CSPI

Nearly 70 percent of the food ads during SpongeBob SquarePants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fairly Odd Parents, iCarly, and other popular children's shows on the Nickelodeon network are for junk foods, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

CSPI researchers catalogued the food advertising on 28 hours of Nickelodeon programming in October 2012 and found 88 ads for foods. Of those, 69 percent were for foods of poor nutritional quality. The most common products marketed to kids were sugary cereals, candy, yogurt with added sugars, fast food and other restaurants, and snacks.

"Nickelodeon congratulates itself for running the occasional public service announcement promoting physical activity," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "But for each of those messages, it's running 30 ads for junk food. Nickelodeon is clearly doing far more harm than good when it comes to the health of America's young people."

Last week, CSPI purchased a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter in the form of a "Wanted" poster featuring mug shots of an unshaven and menacing SpongeBob SquarePants. The ad criticized Nickelodeon for "impersonating a responsible media company while aggressively marketing obesity to kids." Shareholders of Viacom, Nickelodeon's parent company, are meeting in Hollywood this afternoon.

Nickelodeon does not have a clear, publicly available policy on food marketing aimed at children, according to CSPI. Nor has it joined the industry's self-regulatory program, the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. In contrast, the Walt Disney Company has a comprehensive policy that applies nutrition standards to most of their marketing and advertising to kids (though it has at least one problematic exception.) Qubo, a block of kid's programming on the ION Television network, is junk-food-free.

This is the third time CSPI has analyzed food advertising on Nickelodeon. In 2005, 88 percent of food ads on Nick were for unhealthy foods; that percentage dropped to 79 percent in 2008 and 69 percent in 2012. That rate of progress is too slow, says CSPI, given that a third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. However, there were fewer food ads generally on Nickelodeon in 2012 than in 2005 and 2008. In the 2012 study period, 10 percent of the ads were for food, down from 23 percent in 2008 and 22 percent in 2005. The number of ads for unhealthy foods declined from 148 in the 2005 sample to 61 in 2012, perhaps reflecting pressure on the food industry to reduce marketing to kids.

"Junk food is making kids overweight, and contributing to the earlier onset of diabetes and other health problems," Wootan said. "Instead of acting responsibly, Nickelodeon is recklessly throwing gasoline on the fire. And parents are getting fed up."