SpongeBob is not your friend.
That is the message of a lawsuit announced yesterday, asserting that characters like SpongeBob SquarePants - despite his ever-present grin - are harming children's health by hawking what the plaintiffs' consider to be junk food.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Boston-based group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and two parents served notice that they intended to sue Viacom, the maker of the popular children's TV show "SpongeBob SquarePants," and the Kellogg Company, a big marketer of food to children, which features the lovable SpongeBob on packages of cereal, Pop Tarts and cookies.
At a news conference in Washington yesterday, the groups argued that using cartoon characters to sell to children is deceptive and unfair.
"It's unfair because kids under 5 don't even know it's a commercial," said Stephen Gardner, director of litigation for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They think it's a very short SpongeBob program. And it's unfair because at a very important time in their physical and psychological development, kids are being encouraged to eat food that is just not good for them."
The suit, to be filed in Massachusetts under the state's aggressive consumer protection laws, seeks to ban the marketing of food of "poor nutritional quality" to children under 8. Under the law, plaintiffs are required to give a 30-day notice to defendants before filing a suit.
If successful, the suit would apply only to marketing activities in Massachusetts, but Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he thought the suit would have national implications.
"Kellogg is not going to market SpongeBob Pop Tarts one way in Massachusetts and another everywhere else," he said.In a statement, Kellogg responded to the notice of the lawsuit by saying it had a "longstanding commitment to marketing in a responsible manner."
"We will also continue to educate and inform consumers of all ages about the importance of both balanced nutrition and physical activity in maintaining a healthy lifestyle," said a spokeswoman, Jill Saletta.
A Viacom spokesman, Dan Martinsen, said criticisms of Viacom were unfounded because the company had recently undertaken a number of initiatives intended to promote healthy eating and address the problem of childhood obesity.
The company has licensed SpongeBob, Dora the Explorer and characters from LazyTown for use on packages of Grimmway baby carrots and SpongeBob for bags of Boskovich spinach.
This year, Nickelodeon is to contribute $30 million to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a joint project of the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association to combat childhood obesity, Mr. Martinsen said.
Amid concerns over rising childhood obesity, food and entertainment companies have come under fire for how they market food to children.
In December, the Institute of Medicine, a scientific advisory group, issued a report saying that at least 80 percent of the food marketed to children is unhealthy. Among the report's recommendations were that food companies stop using licensed TV and film characters to entice children to eat such food.
Such recommendations, however, are not enforceable, and none of the major marketers of food to children - General Mills, Kraft, Burger King and McDonald's - have announced moves to reduce or eliminate their use of licensed characters.
Mr. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that based on monitoring his staff did last fall, 98 percent of Kellogg's ads on Saturday morning television promoted highly sweentened foods like Apple Jacks and Frosted Flakes cereals. All of Kellogg's 21 Web sites for children feature such food, and 84 percent of the Kellogg products with package marketing aimed at children were of poor nutritional quality, according to Mr. Jacobson.
Sherri Carlson, a 41-year old mother of three and one of the suit's plaintiffs, said she found it hard to assert parental authority in the face of persistent marketing. "If my youngest sees her favorite TV character on the box, she will push me to buy it, even if she has never had the product before," said Ms. Carlson, of Wakefield, Mass. "Whenever I shop with my kids, I end up compromising and finding some 'best of the worst' junk food to keep them happy."
After years of shunning lawsuits in favor of public relations campaigns, Congressional lobbying and regulatory petitioning, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said it had decided to pursue legal action to force change.
"We used to file all sorts of complaints with the government," Mr. Jacobson said. "Sometimes we'd get a response, but usually nothing happened. Now, when we have told companies that we're going to sue them, they show up in our offices the next week."
Mr. Jacobson said the group was pursuing legal action on marketing to children, because the government had failed to regulate. At a July meeting of the Federal Trade Commission, the chairwoman, Deborah Platt Majoras, said it was not "productive" for the agency to restrict the types of ads companies can show to children. Ms. Majoras said she was counting on food and entertainment companies to regulate themselves and come up with ways to sell healthier offerings to children.
In addition to the Kellogg-Viacom lawsuit, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been working with half a dozen lawyers on a possible lawsuit against Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and their major bottlers over the sales of soda and other sugary beverages in schools.
Melanie Warner, The New York Times. January 19, 2006
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