Group Asserts Nickelodeon Markets 'Junk Food'

Nickelodeon-B

A coalition of health groups is pressuring Viacom to implement stronger nutritional standards for the foods marketed on Nickelodeon.

The Food Marketing Workgroup -- led by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest and Berkeley Media Studies Group, and comprising the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, Environmental Working Group and others – sent a letter to Viacom Inc. president/CEO Philippe Dauman and Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami.

The letter urges the executives to “implement strong nutrition standards for all of the company’s food marketing to children,” including all television advertising on Nickelodeon channels, company sites and mobile platforms. It also urges the company to apply stricter nutrition standards for products that want to use licensed characters like Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants.

The letter --  part of a larger campaign being launched by the Workgroup that includes  social media, a letter-writing campaign to Nickelodeon’s CEO and other efforts --  is the latest volley in the ongoing controversy over food marketing to children. 

After intensive lobbying by the food and beverage industry – which says that the voluntary Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) overseen by the Council for Better Business Bureaus is sufficient – Congress last December required that the Interagency Working Group creating voluntary federal guidelines for food marketing to children conduct a cost/benefit analysis of its recommendations. 

That appears to have effectively squelched the guidelines. In March, FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz stated that the guidelines were no longer an agency priority and that “it’s probably time to move on.” Some guidelines advocates accused the Obama administration of essentially withdrawing its support of the guidelines for political reasons (a charge that the administration has denied). 

In any case, CSPI and other groups aren’t about to give up. The Food Marketing Workgroup’s letter states that while the group appreciates Nickelodeon’s “efforts to promote healthy lifestyles to children,” such efforts are “insufficient given the magnitude of the problem.” Nick’s 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 group asserts. “The mix of Nickelodeon’s marketing remains out of balance, doing more to promote unhealthy than healthy eating. This contradicts the network’s claim that since 2002 it has ‘made childhood obesity a filter by which [it] reviews all our business initiatives.’”

The Workgroup also maintains that Nickelodeon’s efforts lag those of other children’s entertainment companies. For example, The Walt Disney Company has announced plans to apply nutrition standards to ads through child-directed television, radio and online sites, and update its nutrition standards for foods that can be advertised to children. ION media also has standards for food marketing to children. 

Nickelodeon should at minimum “meet the food industry’s own baseline” and join the CFBAI – or better yet, “show leadership” by working to help the Interagency Working Group guidelines get implemented, contends the Workgroup. 

Nickelodeon issued a statement saying that the vast majority of its advertisers are already committed to the CFBAI standards, and that no entertainment brand has done more to fight childhood obesity over the past decade, reported Adweek. The brand has worked with the “Let’s Move” program and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, as well as regularly dedicating free air time to health/wellness messaging, it stressed. 

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