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Suing the Pants Off SpongeBob

Litigation may be the one weapon left in the fight against corporate America's fattening of children.
 
 
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The case may sound silly, but it's not. SpongeBob SquarePants is being hauled into court in Massachusetts. His crime? Exploiting young children and contributing to escalating rates of obesity and diabetes. How can a cartoon character be guilty of such things? By corporate marketing run amok.

Late last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) announced their intention to sue Viacom (parent company of Nickelodeon) and Kellogg for unsavory marketing practices aimed at children under age 8. By all psychological measures, such children are too young to understand the persuasive intent of advertising.

It should come as no surprise to parents that these and other companies use popular children's cartoon characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer to hawk all manner of junk foods high in fat and sugar that are virtually devoid of nutritional value. The scientific findings released last month by the revered Institute of Medicine was also not a shocker: These marketing practices work, especially on impressionable young children, whose eating habits are just being formed.

Children's advocates have been fighting for 30 years to get companies to stop exploiting kids, to no avail. It has become painfully clear that consumer groups' calls for government action are now falling of deaf ears. As a result, CSPI and CCFC are turning to litigation as the only remaining remedy available.

And who can blame them? When the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Health and Human Services held a "workshop" last summer on childhood obesity and food marketing, the result was a massive public relations opportunity for junk food companies. Six months later, the agencies have yet to release a promised report on the proceedings, let alone promulgate regulations to actually address the problem. Similarly, Congress has taken no action.

And all the while food companies claim to be "part of the solution" when it comes to childhood obesity. But industry's version of solving the problem means no government tinkering with profit-making. Rather, industry favors "self-regulation," which translates to the fox guarding the henhouse. The Children's Advertising Review Unit, industry's self-appointed and corporate-funded regulatory body has failed miserably. As Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa -- one of few champions for children left in Congress -- has noted: "CARU, frankly, has become a poster child for how not to conduct self-regulation."

When all the other legal avenues have failed: government regulation, legislation, and industry self-regulation, that leaves one remaining option -- litigation.

And yet, this case is bound to suffer the slings and arrows of those who would label any lawsuit aimed at industry for contributing to obesity as "frivolous," the right wing's favorite moniker for any case aimed at curbing corporate excesses. But this case and others like it sure to follow are not about blaming any one company for making people fat. They are about getting irresponsible food and media corporations to stop using deceptive marketing practices to lure vulnerable children into a lifetime of destructive eating habits.

But what about the parents? Corporations are fond of blaming overworked and stressed out parents for giving in to their children's requests for unhealthy food. After all, children don't drive themselves to McDonald's, they say. But if food and advertising companies really want parents to be the decision makers, then they would market children's products only to adults. But instead, they go around the parents by directly targeting children. Corporations foster what advertising experts call the "nag factor," along with other tactics designed to undermine the parent-child relationship.

At an upcoming trade show called "Kid Power" devoted solely to marketing food and beverages to children, junk food peddlers can learn countless tricks of the trade at workshops such as, "Character Development to Create an Emotional Connection" and "Utilizing Branding to Create Increased Value Perception Among Kids In School Cafeterias." How is a parent supposed to compete with all of that psychological marketing savvy?

If both science and common sense tell us that it's inherently deceptive to market to young children, then it should stop. This is a lawsuit whose time has come. With every other legal avenue closed to protect children, suing the worse offenders is the last resort. Let's hope this door doesn't slam shut too. Children deserve better.

Michele Simon, a public-health attorney who teaches health policy at U.C. Hastings College of the Law, is director of the Center for Informed Food Choices , a nonprofit in Oakland, Calif.