Senators Urge Nickelodeon To Crack Down On Unhealthy Food Ads

Network Says Fewer Than 20% of Its Ads Come From the Category

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Food ads under fire at Nick, home of Dora the Explorer
Food ads under fire at Nick, home of Dora the Explorer Credit: Nickelodeon

A year after Walt Disney Co. put restrictions on food advertising to children, four U.S. senators are pressuring Nickelodeon to follow suit.

"We're calling on Nickelodeon-- the biggest source of food ads viewed by kids-- to stop the pitches for unhealthy foods like sugary cereals and sweet snacks that are powerfully promoting childhood obesity," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement today.

He was joined in the push by fellow Democrats Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Dick Durbin of Illinois. In a letter to Nickelodeon and parent company Viacom, the senators called on the children's network to "implement a clear policy to guide the marketing of food to children on Nickelodeon's various media platforms, including the advertisements on your channels, internet sites, and mobile platforms."

The letter references Disney's restrictions, which were announced a year ago last week. "We ask that [Nickelodeon] promptly take similar action to implement strong nutrition standards for all of its marketing to children," the senators stated in their letter. Disney committed to no longer accepting sponsorships or advertisements for foods that don't meet its guidelines for its Disney Channel, Disney XD, Saturday -morning programming on ABC-owned stations, kids' radio and online properties.

Nickelodeon responded in a statement saying it is "primary responsibility is to make the highest-quality content in the world for kids, and we leave the science of nutrition to the experts." The network cited initiatives it has for fighting childhood obesity, dedicating 10% of its airtime to health and wellness messaging. "We have proven our commitment over and over. Less than 20% of our advertising comes from the food category, and the overwhelming majority of those advertisers have already signed on to the CFBAI pledge," Nickelodeon stated, referring to the voluntary guidelines overseen by the Better Business Bureau's Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

The CFBAI late last year released a report showing what it described as "steady improvements" in the nutrition content of foods advertised to children. The report cited a recent in-house review of ads in 31 hours of Nickelodeon programs that found "a majority of the CFBAI participant ads were for foods containing fruit, vegetables, whole grains or non/low-fat dairy." CFBAI is readying tighter standards taking effect Dec. 31 that for first time will enact identical nutritional standards for all its members, rather than letting companies pick and choose their own rules.

The senators cited their own statistics taken from a pair of health activist groups, including a 2010 report by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which stated that Nickelodeon at the time aired a quarter of the food advertisements that are viewed by children under 12. The senators also referenced a 2012 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that found 69% of foods advertised on Nickelodeon "were of poor nutritional quality, including fast foods, sugary cereals and sweet snacks."

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