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Stop undermining parents
USA Today, February 19, 2006

Junk-food marketers are waging a full-frontal assault on American families and kids' health. Companies spend about $10 billion annually convincing kids to want sugary cereals, fatty snacks and every manner of high-cal, low-nutrient, factory-spun junk food.

Their marketing is designed to convince toddlers and 'tweens alike that parents are wrong and that junk-food spokescharacters such as SpongeBob SquarePants are right. Many parents are sick and tired of having the nutritional rug pulled out from under them. They include two Massachusetts parents who, with my group and the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, are taking Kellogg and Viacom (Nickelodeon's corporate parent) to court.

This litigation is a last resort for parents, who for at least 30 years have been increasingly outgunned by marketers and have waited in vain for government intervention. What was once confined to Saturday mornings is now a constant onslaught of 24-hour cable programming, fast-food movie tie-ins and toy giveaways; video "advergames" on the Web; and even classroom marketing disguised as education. SpongeBob cartoons are bracketed with cartoonish junk-food ads. At the grocery store, SpongeBob, Dora, Jimmy Neutron, and other Nick characters grace packages of Pop-Tarts, candy bars, and sugary cereals many containing toys or plugging Web games.

It's hard enough for savvy adults to tell where the entertainment leaves off and the marketing begins. The American Psychological Association has concluded that kids under age 8 don't even understand the persuasive intent of advertising. Any "advertainment" aimed at this age group is inherently deceptive and potentially harmful when it's for products that promote diabetes, obesity, tooth decay and other health problems.

If marketers really believed that parents easily controlled their kids' diets, they'd probably put Desperate Housewives or the Sopranos on junk-food boxes. But the industry knows its money is better spent undermining parents than courting them. So if Kellogg really is "proud of its products and the contributions they make to a healthy diet," and if Nickelodeon truly believes it encourages "kids and their families to live active and healthy lifestyles," we would like them to tell that to a judge under oath.

Michael Jacobson is executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

 

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