PhotoThe Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), Public Citizen and Corporate Accountability International want the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to end a four-year marketing agreement between the popular children’s show Martha Speaks and the fast food chain Chick-fil-A.

The multi-pronged promotion, whose stated goals include "to reach children” and “drive brand preference and restaurant traffic,” includes 15-second ads for Chick-fil-A before and after Martha Speaks TV episodes; advertising on PBS Kids; and in-store giveaways at more than 1,600 Chick-fil-A locations.

In 2011, 56 million Chick-fil-A kids’ meals were distributed in Martha Speaks co-branded bags, and PBS executives refuse to say what they have planned for the 30 months left in the promotion, Public Citizen said in a press release.

An alternative

“Public broadcasting should provide an alternative to the commercial networks that subject children to a barrage of advertisements,” said Elizabeth Ben-Ishai, campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert project. “PBS is a civic institution that can provide a refuge for children from the influences of advertising and marketing. Instead, the Martha Speaks partnership with Chick-fil-A, a business that markets unhealthful food to children, lets kids and families down.”

Given nationwide concerns about childhood obesity, one might think that PBS would be circumspect about using a highly regarded children’s show to lure kids to Chick-fil-A, especially since a kids’ meal can contain as much as 670 calories, 29 grams of fat and 25 grams of sugar, Public Citizen said.

Instead, it said PBS is touting the “success” of its fast food campaign to attract other sponsors looking to target children.

The Sponsorship Group for Public Television features a case study on the Chick-fil-A campaign to convince companies that sponsoring kids’ shows on PBS can help meet their marketing goals. And PBS member station WGBH—which produces Martha Speaks—nominated its Chick-fil-A campaign for a kids marketing award. On June 7 in New York City, the Chick-fil-A/Martha Speaks promotions are competing for a Cynopsis Kids Imagination Award for “Best Promotional Campaign.”

“PBS deserves lots of awards, but using a beloved children’s character to entice children into fast food restaurants is nothing to celebrate,” said CCFC’s Dr. Susan Linn. “Families deserve more from public television, and parents depend on PBS to provide a safe, healthful environment for children.”

Junk food

“A growing number of studies find that ending junk food marketing directed at kids could spare the health of millions of children,” said Sara Deon, Value [the] Meal campaign director at Corporate Accountability International. “Simply put, the less kids are exposed to fast food marketing, the less likely they are to be susceptible to diet-related diseases as adults. PBS needs to put our kids’ health first and stop this promotion with Chick-fil-A.”

The Chick-fil-A sponsorship marks the first time that advertising before and after a PBS children’s show has run simultaneously with an in-restaurant promotion. It’s also the first time a PBS station has celebrated its food marketing to children by nominating itself for an award.

“I wholeheartedly support public television and abhor the ongoing political attacks on PBS,” added Linn. “But we have to hold PBS accountable. If they won’t put kids first, who will?”

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