PhotoThe Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has issued a “wanted” poster for SpongeBob SquarePants, accusing Nickelodeon, in the person of the the popular cartoon character, of marketing “junk-food and obesity” to children.

CSPI and other groups purchased a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter last week featuring a "Wanted" poster with mug shots of an unshaven and disheveled SpongeBob SquarePants. The ad says the character should be “approached with caution: he may be armed with nutritionally dangerous foods.”

"Nickelodeon prides itself on responsible programming for children, but what about its advertising?" asked CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "Nickelodeon is lagging behind companies like Disney when it comes to supporting parents and protecting kids from junk-food marketing."

Efforts to contact Nickelodeon and its parent company, Viacom, for comment were unsuccessful.

Unrepentant Nickelodeon

In 2011, American children under age 12 saw an average of 13 food ads per day, most of which were for unhealthy foods, according to CSPI, which says unlike Disney and Ion Media's Qubo, “Nickelodeon has yet to set nutrition standards for which foods it will advertise to young children through television, its Websites, apps, and other media.” The group claims Nickelodeon, NickToons, and Nick Jr. recently have advertised unhealthy products such as Cocoa Puffs, Air Heads candies, Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants, and Fruit Roll-Ups.

Nick characters are on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Cheese Nip crackers and snacks, including Pez candy and Popsicles. Unilever's Popsicle brand sells ice pops in the shape of SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer. The SpongeBob SquarePants bar is made from water, several forms of sugar, and a long list of preservatives, artificial food dyes, and other additives.

Disney sees the light

In 2006 and again in 2012, CSPI praised the Walt Disney Company for the “progress that it has made to curb junk-food marketing to kids.” CSPI says Disney's updated policy will mean that the company will no longer accept ads for the unhealthiest foods on its children's television, radio, and Websites, and that it is strengthening the nutrition standards for the foods its licensed characters can be used to promote. The Disney character Goofy, for instance, appears on packaging for a snack pack that includes cherry tomatoes, carrots, celery sticks, and dip.

"It's simply wrong for children's entertainment companies to push junk foods and junk drinks on their young viewers," said Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of The California Endowment, a co-sponsor of the ad. "Nickelodeon should follow the example of the Walt Disney Company and establish strong advertising guidelines that teach good nutrition and bar the promotion of unhealthy products on its television, radio, and online channels."

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