Groups To File Lawsuit Against Viacom, Kellogg Over Ads Directed at Children
Two consumer advocacy groups and a group of parents on Wednesday announced plans to file a lawsuit against Viacom, the parent company of Nickelodeon, and the Kellogg Company over advertisements for unhealthful foods targeted at children, the New York Times reports. The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood allege that the use of Viacom cartoon characters, such as SpongeBob Square Pants and Dora the Explorer, to market unhealthy foods to children is inherently deceptive and unfair (Warner, New York Times, 1/19).
According to the plaintiffs, the practice harms the health of children because the ads promote foods high in sugar, fat and salt and low in nutritional value. The plaintiffs plan to file the lawsuit in Massachusetts, which has "one of the nation's most plaintiff-friendly consumer-protection laws," and hope to use to laws in the state to prevent ads for unhealthy foods on television programs for which at least 15% of the audience is younger than age eight, the Washington Post reports. The plaintiffs also seek to prevent the issue of licenses by Viacom to use the cartoon characters in ads for unhealthy foods (Mayer, Washington Post, 1/19).
In addition, the plaintiffs seek $25 for each time a child younger than age eight views an ad for an unhealthy food on Nickelodeon or other Viacom media. The lawsuit also seeks damages for each time a child views an ad for an unhealthy Kellogg product during programs on any media targeted at children and for each time a child views Viacom cartoon characters on the package of a Kellogg product (Ellison/Adamy, Wall Street Journal, 1/19).
The announcement of the lawsuit "comes six weeks after a prestigious national science advisory panel concluded that food and beverage companies were using TV ads to entice children into eating massive amounts of unhealthful food, leading to a sharp increase in childhood obesity," the Post reports (Washington Post, 1/19).
Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, said that 98% of ads for Kellogg products on Saturday morning TV programs promote foods high in sugar and that 84% of Kellogg products with packages targeted at children have low nutritional value. He added that CPSI planned to file the lawsuit because the federal government has failed to regulate the issue.
Stephen Gardner, director of litigation for CSPI, said, "It's unfair because kids under five don't even know it's a commercial. They think it's a very short SpongeBob program. And it's unfair because at a very important time in their physical and psychological development, kids are being encouraged to eat food that is just not good for them" (New York Times, 1/19).
Sherri Carlson, one of the plaintiffs, said that she attempts to promote healthy foods to her children but added that "it's hard to compete with so many ads making junk food so fun and cool." She said, "Critics argue it's up to the parent to 'just say no.' Many times this is easier said than done, especially with strong-willed children, which I happen to have" (Carey, CQ HealthBeat, 1/18).
Dan Mindus, a spokesperson for the Center for Consumer Freedom, said, "Going out on a limb here, perhaps (Carlson's) kids want these foods not because of ads, but because they're children" (Quaid, AP/USA Today, 1/19).
Kellogg officials in a statement said that the company had a "long-standing commitment to marketing in a responsible manner." Kellogg spokesperson Jill Saletta added, "We will also continue to educate and inform consumers of all ages about the importance of both balanced nutrition and physical activity in maintaining a healthy lifestyle" (New York Times, 1/19).
David Mackay, Kellogg president and chief operating officer, said, "I don't think you can sort of put the blame on one thing or another. I think it's a number of factors" (Wall Street Journal, 1/19).
Dan Martinsen, a spokesperson for Viacom, said that the criticisms of the company are unfounded and that Viacom has recently launched a number of programs that promote healthy foods to children and address childhood obesity (New York Times, 1/19).
William Macleod, former director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, said that the lawsuit likely will not succeed, adding, "The problem with these cases is that you cannot identify the harm and you cannot identify the remedy" (Wall Street Journal, 1/19).