A few months ago when SpongeBob Squarepants was being criticized for everything from causing obesity to promoting homosexuality, insiders at Viacom, whose Nickelodeon channel owns the licensing rights to the character, told me they had been searching in vain to find a fruit or vegetable company to license its characters.
So, Nick finally reeled in some veggies. Under new licensing deals, SpongeBob will be on bags of spinach from Boskovich Farms, and SpongeBob, Dora The Explorer and "Lazy Town" characters will be on bags of carrots from Grimmway Enterprises. Nick characters will also be on bags of oranges, tangerines and clementines from LGS Specialty Sales.
It's hardly a coincidence that the announcement of the veggie licensing came out while the Federal Trade Commission was holding a two-day workshop looking into whether food marketing is responsible for the increase in childhood obesity in the U.S.
It’s good that Nick balanced the scales a bit against the flock of candy, ice cream, snacks and cereal that have SpongeBob’s province up to now. But let’s also see the deal for what it is: PR cover. For openers, don’t think for a second that these companies with their tiny marketing budgets are paying anything close to what companies like Kraft and Kellogg pay for using the characters…if they are paying anything at all. And instead of being perturbed, the marketers at those companies paying the big bucks are thrilled. Think of how much better their SpongeBob pitched cereals, macaroni and cheese and cookie dough ice cream look to some Moms and Dads now that Spongey is on spinach and oranges.
Viacom executives have been fretting over the image of Bob and its other characters, because it has long-running contracts with its paying licensing companies and almost no control over what products they are put on at those companies or how they are used.
Not everyone thinks Bo going veggie is a good idea, of course. A spokeswoman for Stonyfield Farms, the leader in organic yogurt, said they wouldn’t be interested in the Nick characters. "I think we'd want a fairly pure character…In a way, it's putting our brand at risk to identify it with a cartoon character that may not share the values,” the spokeswoman told the Associated Press.