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Nickelodeon "wanted" for marketing junk food to children

March 14, 2013 | Heather Gehlert | originally posted by Berkeley Media Studies Group

Public health advocates say that Nickelodeon's practice of marketing unhealthy foods to kids runs afoul of the entertainment giant's claim that it is a responsible media business and have called on the company to stop advertising junk food to children.

The call to action, running as a full-page ad in this week's Hollywood Reporter, resembles an Old West-style "wanted" poster, complete with a mug shot of a disheveled SpongeBob SquarePants and a warning: "Approach with caution: SpongeBob may be armed with nutritionally dangerous foods." The reward for getting Nickelodeon to adopt more responsible marketing practices: "Healthier kids and happier, less-hassled parents."

"Nickelodeon permits SpongeBob to entice kids to eat junk food," Lori Dorfman, director of PHI's Berkeley Media Studies Group, said. "A family-friendly company should be making things easier for parents, not harder. Parents' best efforts to ensure that their kids eat well are simply no match for the billions of dollars that marketers spend each year trying to hook new customers."

In 2009 alone, the food and beverage industry spent $1.79 billion advertising mostly unhealthy products to kids as young as 2. That same year, Nickelodeon, the largest entertainment company for kids, filled its television shows with food ads, nearly 80 percent of which were for unhealthy items. Nickelodeon also markets junk food to children through its websites, games, toy giveaways with fast food meals, and the use of popular characters like SpongeBob.

Unlike adults, children are not able to distinguish such advertising from entertainment. Research from the Institute of Medicine shows that food marketing affects children's food preferences, causes them to eat foods high in salt, sugars and fat, and ultimately harms their health.

Although the company has taken some steps to address the licensing of its characters, advocates say it's not enough and urge Nickelodeon to develop and apply strong nutrition standards to all of the company's marketing to kids -- an action the Walt Disney Company has already taken.

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Heather Gehlert is Online Communications Specialist at PHI's Berkeley Media Studies Group