The Center for Science in the Public Interest is putting the battle in Battle Creek, pledging to sue Kellogg and Viacom cable net Nickelodeon for as much as $1 billion apiece.
CSPI charges the two are "directly harming kids’ health" by marketing "junk food" to kids under 8.
The Boston-based group and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood are filing in Boston on behalf of two Massachussetts parents.
“Nickelodeon and Kellogg engage in business practices that literally sicken our children,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson in a statement. It sites Nickelodeon-connected products including Fairly OddParents Orange & Creme Miniatures Kit Kat bars and SpongeBob SquarePants Wild Bubble Berry Pop-Tarts. (Nickelodeon has also struck deals with carrot and spinach distributors to put its characters on vegetables).
Per Massachusetts law, CSPI sent a letter to Viacom Wednesday informing them of the suit, and it now has 30 days to file it.
"We have not been served with any legal papers," said Viacom in a statement, "That said, Nickelodeon has been an acknowledged leader and positive force in educating and encouraging kids and their families to live active and healthier lifestyles, as well as in the ongoing process of encouraging advertisers to provide more balance in their offerings, and we will continue to do so."
CSPI last fall released a study of Nickelodeon food ads that claimed that "88 percent were for foods of poor nutritional quality." Back in January 2005, CSPI called on TV networks, stations and food marketers to eliminate junk and fast-food advertising to anyone under 18--one of the major sources of support for children’s programming.
Food advertisers and networks have taken a number of steps to blunt criticism of marketing to children, most of those targeted at helping them exercise more and eat healthier diets. Nickelodeon's efforts include committing $30 million over the next year to an Alliance for a Healthier Generation campaign to combat childhood obesity.
Viacom has also reportedly offered advertisers a price break on ads for healthy foods.
Responding to the announced suit, American Association of Advertising Agencies Senior VP and Council Adonis Hoffman, said it "stretches the bounds of believability."
"While everyone is looking for ways to solve the obesity problem, it appears that food companies and the media have adopted several initiatives that promote responsible marketing and advertising practices when it comes to children,
"If nothing else, the self-regulatory and censoring mechanisms set up by broadcasters and food companies on children’s advertising,suggest this is a matter taken seriously by industry.What critics often forget is that industry is moving with the spirit of the times and responding to what consumers expect....
"We should not lose sight of the fact that parents, not government, should be the ultimate arbiters of what their children consume."