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Carey Bryson

Should PBS Market Fast Food to Kids?

By May 23, 2012

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Today, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), Public Citizen, and Corporate Accountability International launched a campaign urging PBS to end a four-year marketing agreement between the popular animated children's show Martha Speaks and the fast food chain Chick-fil-A. Additionally, the coalition is calling on PBS to withdraw their nomination for a Cynopsis Imagination Award for advertising to children.

So, now that you know what the beef is, let me outline the extent of PBS and Chick-fil-A's marketing to kids. The campaign 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. Kids' meals have also included Martha Speaks bags, but currently Chick-fil-A kids' meals have toys and bags sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation.

Before launching into this particular debate, I'd like to point out three things. 1. Chick-fil-A now offers kids' meals with GRILLED nuggets, fruit and milk. Thanks for trying. I mean, I don't know about the processing, sodium content or preservatives in their meals, but at least if I'm on the second day of a road trip, when it's really hard to pack lunches, I have a better option.

2. Chick-fil-A makes it a point to offer educational and enriching toys in their kids' meals. A kids' meal is fun for kids. It's a treat. A healthier kids' meal with a meaningful and fun toy sends a better message to kids, so if they want to put Martha Speaks or Between the Lions toys in there, it's fine with me.

3. Thanks to PBS KIDS for working so hard to provide truly high quality, educational and clean entertainment for kids, and especially those of low socioeconomic status who really do benefit from your shows.

Those things having been said, the argument remains as to whether or not marketing to kids is ethical in the first place, and especially airing in conjunction with PBS programming. I know that the first time I saw an ad for fast food pop up after my kids watched a PBS show, I was not thrilled about it. Ideally, I don't think there should be any marketing to kids on PBS stations whatsoever (certainly not an award for any advertising to kids either). However, PBS needs money to produce and air those high quality kids' shows, so if they aren't getting enough through other means, what are they to do? What if the only alternative is to shut down?

In a free society, questions of what should be allowable in terms of marketing to children are more difficult to answer. I would like the answer to be none. And I'm the parent, so I work it out so I get what I want. My kids watch mostly recorded episodes or DVDs when they do watch TV. But what we're talking about here aren't kids like mine, or probably yours, who have parents that monitor that sort of thing. We're talking about the kids who come home from school to an empty house, grab some junk food and flip on the TV.

Who is protecting those children? Who is teaching those kids both sides of the fast food story? Or the truth about advertising? How is advertising to those kids affecting them? How is it affecting society? Yes, it's the parents' job to monitor their own kids, but where do we draw a line for the sake of all kids and for the future?

These are the questions at the heart of this campaign, and really the CCFC in general. The questions need to be asked and the options discussed. Companies and networks need to be accountable for what they sell to kids in some way to some extent.

There are disclosures required on so many things these days, but I don't hear any fine print being read at the end of commercials aimed at kids saying, "Hey kids, this was an advertisement payed for by people who want you to convince your parents to spend money at their restaurant. Food served here could be really bad for you and could contribute to future problems such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity and even death." Grownups watching a Viagra commercial have more protection than little kids who may or may not be old enough to even understand what advertisement is.

I don't have all the answers to the hard questions on regulating, or not, when it comes to advertising to kids, but shouldn't there at least be a disclosure alerting kids to what's going on? What do you think, are fast food ads during PBS kids programming okay? What about other advertising? How should the ads be regulated and enforced, and what should be done to help PBS if more funding is needed?

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(Photo © PBS KIDS)

May 23, 2012 at 3:50 pm
(1) Amanda says:

I think PBS is in a tough position. They’re trying to compete with bigger, better-funded markets, some of whose shows are created and produced by the same education experts as PBS’ own shows (Angela Santomoro, for one). If they don’t find the funding somehow, our kids will end up losing value programming. If they allow ads, then parents lose their respect for those shows.

As a parent whose youngest watches PBS almost exclusively, I’ve found the Chik-Fil-A ads very inobtrusive, defintely less so than the 5 to 10 minutes worth of flashy, loud “hey kids, ask your parents to buy this” ads on other channels.

It’s a trade-off I’m willing to make for quality programming. And I applaud PBS for finding ways to keep themselves alive in such a competitive market.

May 25, 2012 at 10:52 am
(2) Wende says:

I want to share this with readers of this article and before I do so I want to also be completely upfront and identify myself as an employee for a PBS affiliate. That being said, here is the quote taken from Current 5/24/12.

PBS and WGBH provided this statement to Current in response:

“PBS and WGBH are committed to improving children’s literacy through the curriculum-based content in programs such as Martha Speaks, an award-winning series proven to boost literacy skills. In seeking funders to support the costs of producing our high-quality children’s programs we are grateful to have partners who also support our educational efforts and mission of extending learning to children wherever they may be. Chick-fil-A does this through its sponsorship of Martha Speaks. As part of Chick-fil-A’s support of the series, they have distributed more than 4 million books, as well as 4.5 million printed pieces that feature educational activities and content from the series to promote parent-child interaction. The brief on-air messages for Chick-fil-A comply with PBS’s strict guidelines for sponsors of children’s programs — the message is in support of educational programming on PBS and is aimed at parents, not children. In addition, there is no call to action and no product is shown.”

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