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Careful, Children Are Watching

1/20/2006 07:00:00 PM Eastern

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) gave notice in Massachusetts last week that it will sue Kellogg Co. and Viacom's Nickelodeon for encouraging tykes to eat food high in fat and salt and “almost devoid of nutrients.”

CSPI and the Center for a Commercial-Free Childhood say the ads are obviously unfair because kids don't know much about food. The “deceptive” ads, they say, violate the state's Consumer Protection Act.

Every instance that CSPI can prove in court would cost either Kellogg or Nickelodeon $25, and, when it's added up, that could mean millions. (Although by this reasoning, CSPI should get prosecutors to go after child-endangerment charges against parents who take their children grocery shopping with them. Surely, they know the local Safeway is filled with cookies, soda and salty snacks.)

The consumer groups don't expect monetary damages. They mainly want to enjoin the companies from marketing junk food in places where more than 15% of the audience is under 8 years old and encourage them to stop advertising the stuff through Web sites and contests aimed at wee ones.

In the past year, many food manufacturers and Nickelodeon have taken steps to address the childhood-obesity issue. But Nickelodeon, because it is so popular, has its cartoon characters plastered all over the place. It is, in a way, a victim of its own success, but it is hardly the first entity to use its popularity with kids to market itself. These, however, are different times.

CSPI surveyed a supermarket in Washington and says it found 15 foods bearing Nickelodeon characters, 60% of them for junk. Among them: Fairly Odd­Parents Orange and Crème Miniatures and SpongeBob SquarePants Wild Bubble Berry Pop-Tarts.

What do we think the courts, Congress or the FCC should do about it? Absolutely nothing.

We were only half joking when we said parents should be investigated by public-interest groups, because we believe it is parents who can most effectively get the best message across and purchase the right food.

Nickelodeon is mainly guilty of being a good marketer and a programmer of shows that kids like to watch. It has added several nutritional messages to its programming and, for one day, even went dark and urged kids to go out and play.

We are sympathetic toward kids networks that need to advertise products to their audience.

But many of us are parents, and so are many of our readers. We know all too well the power of advertising.

We think that, whenever possible, Nickelodeon should plaster its characters on a bag of carrots or spinach, rather than on a bag of gummies.

Congress shall make no law. But companies that cater to kids must be much more responsible about what, where and how they pitch.

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