Asked Questions about the lawsuit
against Viacom and
What are you trying to gain by this lawsuit?
This is a
lawsuit about protecting children’s health at a time when
childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes are major public health
problems. We want Viacom (the parent company of Nickelodeon)
and Kellogg to stop marketing junk food to children under eight.
We have stated clearly that if Viacom and Kellogg stop this
practice we will drop the suit
Why Viacom and Kellogg?
Their brands infiltrate nearly every
aspect of children’s lives. Television commercials and Internet
advertising combine with brand licensing, in-school marketing,
promotions, contests, and advergames to sabotage parents’ best
efforts to raise healthy children, turning kids into miniature
lobbyists for products such as SpongeBob Squarepants Wild
Bubble-Berry Pop Tarts and Dora the Explorer Fruit Snacks.
Consider these findings from the Center for Science in the
100% (21/21) of Kellogg’s
websites for children feature foods of poor nutritional value.
One study found that 98% of
Kellogg’s commercials on Saturday morning television were for
foods of poor nutritional content.
In 28 hours of Nickelodeon, of
168 food commercials—148 (88%) were for foods of low
Nickelodeon has partnered with
both McDonald’s and Burger King and its characters can be
found on many packages of food of low nutritional value.
Junk food is advertised
extensively on Nick.com, and Nickjr.com which are among the
most popular websites for kids.
Why are you so concerned about junk food marketing?
Childhood obesity is a major public health problem. Overweight
children are at risk for a number of serious medical problems
including Type 2 diabetes; yet children continue to be inundated
with ads for foods high in fat, sugar, salt, and calories. The
National Academies' Institute of Medicine recently concluded in
an extensive literature review that food advertising influences
children's food choices, food purchase requests, diets, and
Children have always been targets of food advertising. I
remember cereal commercials on Saturday morning TV when I was
kid. Is the situation really any different? Can’t parents just
turn off the TV?
The situation has completely changed over
the past twenty years. Television programs for children are now
on 24 hours-a-day, but even children whose parents limit their
exposure to television are not protected from junk food
marketing. Marketer also use film promotions, product
placement, brand licensing, Internet ads, advergaming (computer
games built around a product) , viral marketing (using children
to market to friends), guerilla marketing (using public space as
venue for advertising), cell phone ads and in-school marketing
to target children. In 2005, the food industry alone spent $10
billion marketing to children.
But can’t parents just say no to their kids’ food requests?
In the debate over the causes of childhood obesity, parents are
often given a bad rap. We hear arguments such as, children don’t
drive themselves to fast food places, and that parents just need
to turn off the television. Of course, parents have an important
and critical role to play in teaching their children good eating
habits and in modeling that behavior. However, we cannot ignore
the fact that food corporations spend roughly $10 billion a year
directly targeting children with junk food marketing. If parents
are supposed to be the ones making decisions for their children,
then why are companies bypassing parents altogether and
marketing directly to kids?
Corporations such as Viacom and Kellogg’s aim to undermine
parental authority by getting children to nag their parents. And
it’s not only marketing for junk food that parents must contend
with, but also for toys, video games, clothing, CDs, cell
phones, computers--you name it. So, which battles are parents
expected to fight? And why have we accepted a consumption driven
society in which parents must continuously say no to their
children who are being assaulted by marketing?
Isn’t it another case of parents
choosing not to take responsibility for their actions but
instead placing the blame elsewhere?
We do not see
parents as powerless or as abdicating their parental
responsibility when we pass child labor laws. Rather, we
recognize that there are business forces so powerful and harmful
that parents and society need to band together to fight them.
Further, most people do not see laws banning alcohol, tobacco,
and pornography sales to minors as evidence of parental failure
or as an invitation for parents to become less vigilant in
regards to these products. If anything, the opposite is true.
Making these products illegal underscores how harmful they are
and encourages parents to monitor their children's behavior in
regards to them. These laws help parents to be good parents.
Andrew Leong and Sherri Carlson, the two parents who are
plaintiffs in this lawsuit, recognized a legitimate threat to
their children’s wellbeing. Rather then simply trying to spend
all of their time shielding their children from that threat,
they decided to confront it head-on – not just on their own
children but for the sake of children everywhere. That sounds
like responsible parenting to us.
Corporations spend a great deal of time and money devising ways
to get to children by bypassing parents. They purposely
undermine parental authority. Are they not accountable for
But it’s a corporation’s job to make money. Do you really
expect them not to market to children?
In fact, society already limits the corporate exploitation of
children. Otherwise there would be no child labor laws or laws
forbidding the sale of alcohol, tobacco and pornography to
minors. We'd just tell parents not to let their children work or
buy these products. So the question isn't whether society's
institutions have responsibilities to protect children, but
rather what these responsibilities are. A civilized society
strives to protect its children from adults that would exploit
and harm them, even when those adults work for a corporation.
What is the legal basis of this lawsuit?
case is being brought under a Massachusetts statute that is
designed to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive
advertising. Our argument is simply that it is unfair and
deceptive to market to children under the age of 8 because they
don’t have the cognitive ability to understand they are being
advertised to. In other words, young children cannot perceive
the “persuasive intent” of advertising. As far back as 1978, the
Federal Trade Commission recognized this fact when the agency
proposed a total ban on all TV ads aimed at young children.
While industry might try to claim their marketing is protected
by the First Amendment, deceptive advertising is not protected
Why is litigation necessary?
Many people associate lawsuits with greedy trial lawyers.
However, this case is not about money. It’s about getting
irresponsible food and media corporations to stop using
deceptive marketing practices to lure vulnerable children into a
lifetime of destructive eating habits. Litigation has been an
important tool of social change throughout our nation’s history.
From the environment, to civil rights, to health care, public
interest advocates have relied on the court system as a last
resort when other avenues fail, in order to bring about
much-needed improvements in the ways we live our lives.
Have you tried other avenues?
Children’s advocates have been fighting for more than thirty
years to get companies to stop targeting children with
advertisements for unhealthy food, but to no avail. Large
corporations have undue influence on Capitol Hill and the food
industry and media industries are certainly no exception. Many
regulations are inadequate to protect children, thanks to heavy
industry lobbying. When all the other legal avenues have failed:
government regulation, legislation, and industry
self-regulation, that leaves only one remaining option:
Isn’t this just one more “frivolous lawsuit”?
There has been much talk in the media lately of “frivolous
lawsuits,” giving the wrong impression that many lawsuits
against food companies are being filed. But in fact courts
disallow baseless claims through the normal course of legal
procedures. The companies’ lawyers will have ample opportunity
to ask the court to dismiss the case early on in the litigation
process. In addition, if the case is dismissed, the opposing
counsel can ask the judge to sanction our lawyers for filing a
frivolous claim. Because lawyers don’t like to pay fines or be
sanctioned, this case was not brought lightly. Also, because
filing a lawsuit takes such a tremendous amount of resources,
few lawyers are willing to take big risks, especially against
corporate defendants who can and do easily out-spend them,
wearing them down. All of these potentially costly risks work
quite well together to discourage the filing of “frivolous
What are the benefits of litigation?
Lawsuits can bring an important issue into the public eye, which
in turn puts pressure on legislators to act. A good example is
how in the tobacco wars, litigation got the attention of
Congress, who then held hearings to investigate industry
practices. An avalanche of damning documents discovered through
litigation revealed much malfeasance by tobacco companies. This
was critical to shifting public opinion, giving policymakers the
support they needed to pass significant public health measures
that have reduced smoking rates and lessened exposure to
Why hasn’t the federal government acted?
30 years, children’s advocates have been trying to stop junk
food marketing to children by asking the federal government to
take action, but to no avail. We came close in the late 1970s,
but the food and advertising industries mounted a $16 million
lobbying campaign that threatened to shut down the entire
Federal Trade Commission, the agency that proposed tighter
regulations. Since then, the federal government has done
virtually nothing, while technology has advanced to make
marketing even more sophisticated and harmful to children. Also
during that time, we have seen child obesity and diabetes rates
begin to climb. And yet, last summer when the Federal Trade
Commission and Department of Health and Human Services held a
“workshop” on childhood obesity and food marketing, the result
was a massive public relations opportunity for junk food
companies. To this day, the agencies have yet to release a
promised report on the proceedings, let alone promulgate
regulations to actually address the problem.
Why can’t the food industry regulate itself?
Food and marketing companies favor “self-regulation,” which
translates to the fox guarding the henhouse. The Children’s
Advertising Review Unit (CARU) industry’s self-appointed and
corporate-funded regulatory body has failed miserably to protect
children since its inception in the mid-1970s. For example, CARU
places no nutritional limits on the types of foods that can be
marketed. Also, when CARU does act, companies rarely listen
since CARU has no enforcement power. As Senator Tom Harkin of
Iowa has noted: “CARU, frankly, has become a poster child for
how not to conduct self-regulation.”
**Special thanks to Michele Simon from the
Center For Informed Food
Choices for her expertise and help in drafting this FAQ.
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Take Action: Tell Viacom and Kellogg to Stop Marketing Junk Food
to Young Children