09/29/2011 12:20 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2011

Nickelodeon: Not the Only Company Reaching Young Children Through Advertisements Intended for Older Children

According to a study recently published in Pediatrics, Nickelodeon's popular children's TV show, SpongeBob SquarePants, negatively affects preschoolers' skills associated with success in school, including working memory, problem-solving, and ability to focus. In response to the study, representatives from Nickelodeon questioned the validity of the findings; the study had only 60 children, and they were all white and from middle to upper class families. Fair enough. But the Nickelodeon response that made us scratch our heads was the statement that the show is "expressly designed to entertain 6-to-11-year-olds" and never intended for children under age 6.

This was news to us and made us wonder -- how many preschoolers do watch SpongeBob? According to Nielsen, an average of 689,000 preschoolers (ages 2-5) and 855,000 older children (ages 6-11) watch each regular episode of SpongeBob. In fact, one-quarter of the program's audience are preschoolers. Further, in checking the times that SpongeBob is aired, we noted that it is currently on from 1:00 - 2:30 on weekdays. Aren't most 6-11-year-olds in school during that time?

The other behavior on the part of Nickelodeon that makes it hard to believe that they really do not intend SpongeBob to be seen by children under age 6 is that they have licensed SpongeBob characters to a number of products that are specifically designed for very young children, such as sippy cups which according to Amazon are "ideal for babies over 12 months," and toddler slippers.

The reason this issue is relevant to us at the Rudd Center is that we study the impact of food marketing on children, and we have noted that food companies frequently reach large numbers of very young children through advertisements that they claim are intended for older children. In 2006, ten of the leading food and beverage companies, including General Mills and Kellogg's, pledged to not advertise any products to children under age 6 through the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) sponsored by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Despite these pledges, our research, as well as research from the University of Illinois Chicago, shows that 2 to 5 year-olds view nearly as many TV food ads as older children. We need a better way to protect our young children from marketing.

Research has shown that advertising to very young children is harmful. Until age 7 or 8, children do not have the cognitive capacity to understand that advertising presents a biased point-of-view and they simply view it as another source of information. The food and entertainment industries need to show better follow through when the say they aren't targeting young children.

For those interested in doing more, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood created a petition that urges Nickelodeon to stop marketing SpongeBob to young children.