Leading kids' entertainment brand Nickelodeon has made another move towards promoting fresh produce to children, announcing this month that its popular cartoon characters will feature on kid-friendly packs of fruit.
The move comes amid mounting criticism from health bodies and advocacy groups that children are being targeted by a flood of advertising for nutritionally deficient products.
Indeed, Nickelodeon's characters have so far primarily been associated with products such as cereal, ice cream and candy. However, the group last year launched a licensing initiative to encourage a healthier diet for kids, and said it expects to continue promoting healthy products.
Following in this vein, it completed its latest agreement earlier this month with fruit firm Summeripe Worldwide. The multi-year licensing agreement will bring Nickelodeon's most popular characters, SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora The Explorer, to packs of farm fresh peaches, plums and nectarines.
"Adding SpongeBob and Dora peaches, plums and nectarines to our successful assortment of Nickelodeon branded fruits and vegetables will make the produce aisle even more kid-friendly," said Sherice Torres, vice president, Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products.
"Nickelodeon is committed to encouraging kids to eat right and make healthy food choices," she added.
The licensed products are due to appear in stores as of spring 2007, and will include both loose and packaged offerings of yellow and white flesh peaches and nectarines as well as a complete variety of plums and pluots.
The child sized fruit will feature SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer graphics on the packaging to help make it easier for parents to encourage their children to eat fresh fruits as part of a healthy diet.
The move follows previous agreements by the network to use its characters on fruit and vegetable products including fresh baby carrots, clementines, apples, pears, cherries, spinach and organic edamame.
According to Nickelodeon, its two characters - SpongeBob and Dora The Explorer - currently bring in around $1bn each per year in sales of branded goods.
And LGS Specialty Sales, which supplied the clementine products that licensed the characters, said Dora and SpongeBob were an "instant hit" , increasing grocery store sales of the products by almost 30 percent. Grimmway Farms, which sold SpongeBob baby carrots, said the item enjoyed double digit sales increases in some regional retailers.
Nickelodeon said it has committed $30m in resources and 10 percent of its air to health and wellness messaging to children.
It is currently in its fourth year of its initiative, Let's Just Play. In 2005, Let's Just Play entered into a partnership with The Alliance for a Healthier Generation to combat the spread of childhood obesity. The three organizations teamed up to launch a media and public awareness campaign designed to encourage young people to engage in healthy and active lifestyles.
Earlier this year, media conglomerate Viacom- Nickelodeon's parent company- was threatened with a lawsuit by parents and consumer groups for marketing junk food to children.
Together with cereal company Kellogg, the entertainment firm was accused of "directly harming kids' health" by pressure groups Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood.
At the time, the CSPI had claimed that the "overwhelming majority of food products they market to children are high in sugar, saturated fat, or salt, or almost devoid of nutrients."
But Nickelodeon says its latest partnerships are not a reaction to accusations of irresponsible marketing.
"We believe that what is good for kids is good for business. Because the rising obesity issue is important in kids' lives, we chose to opt in, and be a part of the solution," Torres told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
"It was an uphill battle making some of these deals a reality but we believe this is progress and a move in the right direction to provide an overall balance for kids," she added.