A group of consumer organizations and individuals announced Wednesday that they will sue a major media company and a food corporation to stop junk food marketing aimed at young children.

The suit targets cereal maker Kellogg Co. and Viacom Inc., which airs millions of dollars worth of food advertisements through its Nickelodeon children’s cable television network. Nickelodeon also licenses several cartoon characters that appear on hundreds of food products and other items marketed to young children.

Kellogg makes dozens of products promoted to children, including high-sugar cereals such as Frosted Flakes and Keebler cookies.

“Nickelodeon and Kellogg engage in business practices that literally sicken our children,” says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

The group says it intends to file the suit in Massachusetts, which has some of the strongest consumer protection laws in the country. But the action is intended to force companies to scale back marketing of high-fat, high-sugar foods directly to children nationwide, activists say.

Advocates and medical organizations have long criticized aggressive marketing of junk food to young children, saying it contributes to poor nutrition and may play a role in promoting childhood obesity.

Massachusetts law requires would-be plaintiffs to notify defendants that they intend to sue 30 days before going to court. A letter sent to the companies says plaintiffs will ask a judge to force a ban against ads promoting foods high in sugar, fat, calories, and salt but would try to limit ads for healthier foods.

“We’re only trying to get rid of the worst of the worst,” Jacobson says.

Watchdog Group: Reduce Junk Food Ads for Kids

National Implications

But such a ban would effectively force the companies to alter advertising practices for the whole country. “This really has national implications,” says Jacobson, who added that his group was considering targeting other companies that market to young children, including fast-food chains McDonald’s and Burger King.

The CSPI was joined by two Massachusetts parents and a Boston-based nonprofit group called Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“We can no longer stand by while our children’s health is sacrificed for corporate profits,” says Susan Linn, the group’s co-founder.

Food companies and fast-food restaurants together spend an estimated $10 billion per year in marketing efforts aimed at children.

CSPI has also threatened to sue beverage companies in an effort to remove high-sugar soft drinks from Massachusetts schools. The group is currently in negotiations with bottlers over a possible settlement, says Steven Gardner, a CSPI lawyer.

A 2004 report from the American Psychological Association (APA) called for curbs to advertising aimed at young children, a call that was echoed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The APA report concludes that such advertising exploits children under 8 since most lack the ability discern an ad’s persuasive intent from a cartoon character’s usual entertainment value.

Kellogg spokeswoman Jill Saletta declined in an emailed statement to comment on the suit. “We have a longstanding commitment to marketing in a responsible manner and our messages accurately portray our products,” she writes.

In December, an Institute of Medicine report called for Congress to rein in child-targeted food marketing if companies do not substantially shift their marketing practices within two years.

Such a shift could curb the use of popular cartoon characters to promote high-sugar cereals, high-fat dinners, and other potentially unhealthy products. Such characters include the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants, which last year garnered Nickelodeon $1.5 billion in licensing fees for food, apparel, and other products, according to the company.

Jacobson says the suit would not solve the nation’s overweight and obesity problem, which now affects an estimated one-third of all American children. “It’s one part of the solution,” he says.

Nickelodeon spokeswoman Joanna Roses also would not comment on the impending suit because the company has not yet received any legal documents. She says the network has committed to spend $30 million this year on public service announcements and campaigns promoting physical activity and healthy eating.

“Nickelodeon has been an acknowledged leader and positive force in educating and encouraging kids to live healthier lifestyles, as well as in the ongoing process of encouraging advertisers to provide more balance in their offerings, and we will continue to do so,” the company says in a statement.

Fast Food Chains Cluster Around Schools

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Michael Jacobson, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest. Report on the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children, American Psychological Association, Feb. 20, 2004. Susan Linn, co-founder, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Jill Saletta, spokeswoman, Kellogg Co. Joanna Roses, spokeswoman, Nickelodeon.