SpongeBob SquareMeal?

Responding to critics, children's TV shows and food giants are promoting healthy eating to kids. Even the Cookie Monster's in on the act

By Pallavi Gogoi

More than 30 years ago, Popeye chomped on spinach and declared: "I yam what I yam," and children squealed with delight. But the squint-eyed, pipe-smoking sailor with the odd bulge in his arms was probably the last lovable animated cartoon character who ate anything healthy. In fact, over the years youngsters have seen a string of cartoon characters peddling candies and sugary cereals -- from Fred Flintstone on Fruity Pebbles boxes to Tweety Bird and Daffy Duck on Pez dispensers, and finally SpongeBob SquarePants, who got his own cereal made of lightly sweetened, puffed, jellyfish-shaped corn and oats.

That is, until now. With childhood obesity under the microscope, activists have been aggressively pointing their fingers at cartoon networks and at food companies for using popular cartoon stars to lure children into eating foods high in sugar, fat, and salts.

Stung by the criticism, Nickelodeon, the children's TV channel that gets royalties for SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer, has responded by licensing its most popular TV characters to distributors of fruits and vegetables. Starting in August, SpongeBob and Dora will appear in supermarkets on carrots sold by Grimmway Farms and on kids' peel-off tattoos in bags of spinach sold by Boskovich Farms. "Kids love SpongeBob and always ask for products that feature him," says Don Hobson, vice-president of sales and marketing at Boskovich Farms, in Oxnard, Calif. (Neither side would divulge terms of the deals.)


  Nickelodeon isn't alone in this healthy venture -- Sesame Street's Bert, Ernie, Elmo, and Grover have all started pushing vegetables and exercise. Even Cookie Monster says: "A cookie is a sometimes food" and sings "C is for carrots and cantaloupes, not just cookies." Celebrity singer Alicia Keys teaches Elmo the benefits of moving your body to the music, and Andrea Bocelli sings "Time to say good night" for Elmo, reminding kids to get enough sleep. And on the Disney Channel(DIS ), JoJo's Circus motivates kids to get up from the couch and move.

Many of these steps are in response to alarming reports of obesity in the last few years among children and adults. In its last report, the Institute of Medicine, of the National Academy of Sciences, said some 9 million children older than 6 -- or 15% of kids -- are obese and that the rate of childhood obesity in the last 30 years has tripled among those aged 6 to 11.

Corporate America is on the front lines of the battle over who's to blame and what to do about the growing problem (see BW Online, 10/26/04, "The Food Giants Go on a Diet"). The Federal Trade Commission and the Health & Human Services Dept. jointly sponsored a workshop on July 14 and 15 to examine perspectives on childhood obesity and marketing. At the conference, FTC commission chair Deborah Platt Majoras warned that even though a government ban on children's food advertising is not warranted at this time, it would be unwise for the industry to maintain the status quo. "If industry fails to demonstrate good-faith commitment to this issue and take positive steps, others may step in and act in its stead," she said.


  Some companies, those who have been on the receiving end of the worst criticism, are starting to make more than marketing changes. Kraft (KFT ), which makes the sodium- and fat-infused Lunchables, has started phasing out its TV ads in programming targeted at youngsters aged 6 to 11. In March, it also reformulated some snacks such as Teddy Grahams Cubs and Smilin' Ritz Bits, replacing artificial flavors, sweeteners, and trans fatty acids with whole grains. It has also repackaged them in single-serving pouches to discourage overeating.

And McDonald's (MCD ), long known as primarily a hamburger joint, is starting to look like a salad retreat. Not as many of its ads tout its mega-caloric Big Mac or its Big 'N' Tasty Burger, as they did a few years ago. Now, it's the "fruit buzz" you get from its new fruit-and-walnut salad or the premium salads that come with 17 types of lettuce. These days you're likely to see Ronald McDonald juggling fruit while skateboarding in the company's ads.

As for Nickelodeon, critics castigated the TV favorite of the under-15 crowd for signing lucrative multiyear deals with big food companies such as Kraft and Kellogg (K ) to license its characters to sell macaroni and cheese and cookies. Nickelodeon then conducted studies, in conjunction with Cogent Research, that showed only 50% of kids in the U.S. ate breakfast everyday and 74% of them choose what they eat for breakfast. As a result, Nickelodeon said it decided to spend $20 million and 10% of air time on health and wellness messaging. This includes spots like one called "It's Breakfast Time," featuring singing spoons and forks.


  "Nickelodeon recognizes the importance of health and wellness for kids and is proud of the efforts the network is making to encourage kids to eat right and make healthy food choices," said Sherice Torres, vice-president for Nickelodeon & Viacom (VIA ) Consumer Products.

The food giants may have mixed motives for using SpongeBob and Dora to get kids to eat healthier, but critics say they can live with that. And Nickelodeon's vegetable and fruit push helps beleaguered farmers, too. "SpongeBob is a great way to differentiate ourselves from the other carrots out there," says Phil Gruszka, vice-president of marketing at Grimmway Farms, the world's largest grower of carrots. Grimmway will start featuring SpongeBob on its bags of baby-cut, peeled carrots next month.

Of course, the benefits of helping out the agriculture industry are important, but minor compared to what the nation would gain from healthier kids who grow up wanting to eat nutritious foods.

Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Beth Belton

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