The popular Nickelodeon cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants is a master of all media. In 2003 alone the adventurous yellow sponge generated $1.5 billion in licensing revenues for Nickelodeon's parent company Viacom Inc. In television ads and in the aisles of supermarkets, he extols the virtues of Rice Krispies treats, Pop-Tarts, Cheez-Its, a cereal bearing his name, Eggo waffles and E.L. Fudge cookies. But if a group of Massachusetts plaintiffs have their way, SpongeBob and children's other favorite characters are going to have to step out of the food-marketing spotlight.
Consumer watchdogs Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), along with two Massachusetts parents, are suing Kellogg Co. and Viacom in a Massachusetts court. They are asking the court to enjoin the companies from hawking high-fat, sugar-filled foods with marketing specifically targeted to young children. They are claiming statutory damages in excess of $2 billion.
But whether practices in the food industry give rise to the kind of potential liabilities that forced big tobacco into that settlement is up for debate. The plaintiffs argue that the problems food marketing presents are just as grave.
"If we know that childhood obesity is a major epidemic and we know that advertising and marketing impacts children's eating habits, what is the possible justification for these companies to aggressively market junk food to children?" Linn asks.
Plaintiffs scoff at the contention that self-regulation is adequate and say they will continue to fight for limits on the food industry even if Congress and the FTC do not act.