In 2005, Nickelodeon—a company of Viacom International, which is a leading entertainment company for American children—announced that it would begin licensing several of its popular cartoon spokescharacters, including SpongeBob SquarePants® and Dora the Explorer®, to produce companies to promote fruit and vegetable consumption (Smalls, 2005). In 2006, Nickelodeon announced plans to license the use of images of these characters to promote the consumption of apples, pears, cherries, and soybeans (Horovitz, 2006). Other characters are being used to promote fruit consumption, including the Warner Brothers characters Bugs Bunny™ and Tweety™ Bird and the Sesame Workshop’s characters Elmo™ and Cookie Monster™ (Horovitz, 2006; Sunkist, 2005). Independent evaluations that assess these characters’ appeal and influence on children’s food preferences, product sales, and the levels of consumption of fruits and vegetables are needed.
The industry-supported, self-regulatory Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) was formed in 1974 as an industry self-regulatory mechanism to promote responsible advertising and promotional messages for children and youth under 12 years of age. The purpose of industry self-regulation is to ensure that advertising messages directed to young children are truthful, accurate, and sensitive to this audience (CARU, 2003a,b). CARU works with food, beverage, restaurant, toy, and entertainment companies, as well as advertising and marketing agencies, to ensure that advertising messages directed at children younger than 12 years adhere to these guidelines (CARU, 2003a,b) (Box 5-5).
An assessment conducted by the National Advertising Review Council (NARC, 2004), which establishes policies and procedures for CARU, suggests that within its designated technical purview, the CARU guidelines have generally been effective in enforcing voluntary industrywide standards for traditional forms of advertising and that the number of advertisements that contain words and images that directly encourage children to consume excessive amounts of food has been reduced (IOM, 2006). Nevertheless, CARU reviews advertisements for accuracy and to reduce deceptive advertising, but it does not have the ability to monitor or regulate the nutrition information provided by commercials. Implicit in the NARC review findings is the limited scope of authority of CARU. The guidelines do not address issues related to the volume of food, beverage, and meal advertising targeted to children and youth; the broader marketing environment; or the many integrated marketing strategies that have increased to reach young people since CARU’s inception in 1974 (IOM, 2006).