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Nickelodeon beefs up fruit partnership

By Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY
July 19, 2006

SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer aim to become even bigger celebs in the supermarket's produce aisle amid new rivals and testy criticism.
On Wednesday, Nickelodeon will announce plans to put images of cartoon stars SpongeBob and Dora on packs of apples, pears, cherries and edamame (soybeans).

The move comes just one year after SpongeBob and Dora each with about $2 billion in annual sales of consumer licensed products first appeared on packages of carrots and Clementines. Entertainment rivals from Sesame Workshop to Disney have increasingly linked their most popular cartoon characters with fruits and veggies.

"My goal is to have every fruit a kid would want to eat with a Nickelodeon character," says Sherice Torres, licensing vice president at Nickelodeon. "We're trying to see how many places we can use our characters to encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables."

Critics say this isn't about getting kids to eat veggies.

"These companies are in the cross hairs of litigation and poor public relations," says Kelly Brownell, director at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "They're in a hurry to immunize themselves."

The more prevalent use of SpongeBob and Dora is to market sugary cereals, ice cream or candy, says Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "Until companies stop marketing junk food to children, it's hard to see putting media characters on produce as anything but window dressing."

But Nickelodeon executives say they're serious about better-for-you foods. "We've made a commitment to give parents and kids options," says Torres. She says Nickelodeon contacted fruit and vegetable outfits in 2001 about a tie-in, but none would listen.

Last year, unit sales of Darling Clementines rose nearly 25% after the brand added images of Dora and SpongeBob on the packs, says Luke Sears, president of importer LGS Specialty Sales.

Maybe that's why now:

Winnie the Pooh is on apples. Last month, Walt Disney signed a licensing deal with Tesco, a big grocery retailer in the United Kingdom, to place stickers of popular Disney characters from Pooh to Tigger on branded fruit such as apple and bananas.

Bugs Bunny is on grapes. Ready Pac this year launched Cool Cuts Ready Snax, single-serve packs of apples, grapes and carrots, with images of Warner Bros. characters Bugs Bunny, Tweety and the Tasmanian Devil. "Kids think its food for them as opposed to their parents," says Steve Dickstein, marketing chief.

Elmo is coming to green beans. Last month, Del Monte Foods announced a licensing deal with Sesame Workshop. Besides Elmo, Grover will appear on sweet pea labels and Cookie Monster on corn labels.



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