The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Public Citizen, and Corporate Accountability International have launched a campaign urging 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 1600 Chick-fil-A locations. In 2011, an astounding 56 million Chick-fil-A Kids' Meals were distributed in Martha Speaks co-branded bags, and PBS executives refuse to say what promotions they have planned for the 30 months left in the promotion.
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. Instead, 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 -- actually 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. Families deserve more from public television, and parents depend on PBS to provide a safe, healthful environment for children.
As political attacks on PBS have increased, threatening funds, the network has increasingly turned to sponsorships as a means of financing its programming. The Chick-fil-A sponsorship marks the first time 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 fast food marketing to children by nominating itself for an advertising award.
I wholeheartedly support public television and abhor the ongoing political attacks. But we have to hold PBS accountable. If they won't put kids first, who will?