Nickelodeon: Junk-Food Hawker?

Health groups want SpongeBob and friends to stop shilling for sugar bombs.

Do too many Nickelodeon ads look like this? (Photo: Caroline Purser/Getty Images)

Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

If you’re a parent, you’ve likely wondered why junk-food ads are running so frequently when your kid’s TV shows cut to commercial break.

After all, we’ve been subjected to a steady drumbeat of news about how the nation’s children are getting bigger (one third are either overweight or obese), and how a steady diet of (basically) junk food plays a large part in that collective weight gain.

Now comes news of another startling statistic: Ads for “foods of poor nutritional quality” on the most popular kids’ network, Nickelodeon, only decreased by a measly 10 percent from 2005 to 2009! What’s worse, a full 80 percent of kid-targeted food ads on the network were for things like junk food and sugary drinks.

That’s according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which is leading a coalition of public health advocacy groups and nutrition experts in calling on Nickelodeon to adopt stronger nutritional standards. The allied groups are asking that the network not only be more discerning in which foods it will allow to be advertised on its channels, but to restrict which products will bear the trademarked likeness of such beloved children’s television icons as SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer.

(Of course, even if SpongeBob is used to hawk carrots sticks in the grocery store, it still seems somewhat problematic that, on the show, the undersea dweller inexplicably works flipping fatty fast-food burgers down at the Krusty Krab.)

If Nickelodeon’s progress toward adopting more socially responsible advertising guidelines has been as tortured as watching a chubby fifth grader try to execute a pull-up in gym, Disney proved to be more svelte in this regard: Last summer the children's media giant announced an overhaul of its own ad standards. By 2015, all foods targeted at kids on every one of Disney’s media platforms will have to meet the company’s updated nutritional guidelines. The new standards reflect the federal government's push to encourage the consumption of more fruits and vegetables, and cutting back on sugar, sodium and saturated fats.

Yet if you click over from the Disney Channel to Nickelodeon, NickToons or Nick Jr., foods like Cocoa Puffs, Airheads, Chuck E. Cheese pizza and Fruit Roll-Ups are still being pitched with seeming abandon, according to CSPI.

And that, the organization contends, makes it doubly hard for parents to encourage their kids to eat healthy.

“It’s not just a matter of parents saying, ‘no.’ Junk food marketing shapes what children are willing to eat, not only at home but also at school, afterschool programs and daycare. It causes battles over breakfast, conflicts when shopping, and can be down-right embarrassing when kids throw a tantrum in a restaurant or grocery store,” says Margo Wootan, CSPI's nutrition policy director. “Nick should stop turning our kids against us and deliberately making parents’ jobs harder.”

And really, why couldn’t SpongeBob suddenly discover a love for, say, kale? Just look at what Popeye did for spinach.

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