October 14th, 2003

Group Asks Bert & Ernie to Shun McD’s; Claims Sesame Street Sponsorship Promotes Obesity

By Kelly Quigley
Crain's Chicago Business

A group of health professionals, educators and child advocates is urging the producers of “Sesame Street” to stop airing sponsorship messages from McDonald’s Corp., saying the messages contribute to childhood obesity.

The coalition includes more than two dozen university professors, physicians, authors and nutrition experts who argue sponsorship spots by Oakbrook-based McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast-food chain, have turned “Sesame Street” into an advertising vehicle “to hook a new generation of children on its high-calorie junk food.”

Commercial Alert, a non-profit group founded by Ralph Nader, is targeting the brief sponsorship spots that run before and after the popular children’s program broadcast on public television stations nationwide. The spots do not directly advertise McDonald’s products.

“It is understandable why McDonald’s would seek access to Sesame Street’s audience of impressionable children,” the coalition wrote in an Oct. 13 letter to Gary Knell, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, the non-profit group behind the TV show. “But why you would deliver these children to the corporation is another question.”

In a statement, Mr. Knell defended the fast-food giant’s sponsorship and said McDonald’s has provided “critical funding” for Sesame Workshop’s educational content.

“Sesame Street” airs on public television stations that require corporate underwriters like McDonald’s to adhere to strict guidelines in order for their messages to air, Mr. Knell said. “As such, the McDonald’s sponsorship messages do not show product, announce promotions or contain any call to action,” he said in a statement.

A Sesame Workshop spokeswoman wouldn’t disclose the amount of funding McDonald’s has provided, or how long the company has been a financial supporter of “Sesame Street.”

Calls to McDonald’s were not returned.

Who is to blame?

McDonald’s has come under fire for allegedly promoting unhealthy eating habits that contribute to America’s obesity epidemic. But, so far, the courts appear unlikely to hold the burger franchise responsible for consumers’ expanding waistlines.

Earlier this year, for example, a New York judge dismissed a lawsuit claiming McDonald’s hooked kids on fatty foods.

The chain is taking some actions to address growing concerns over obesity.  It’s added healthier menu items such as salads and earlier this month appointed former Quaker Oats Co. executive Cathy Kapica as director of worldwide nutrition to lead healthy initiatives.

Regardless, the Commercial Alert coalition is calling for an immediate ban of McDonald’s sponsorship messages. “What’s next, will Ronald McDonald replace the cookie monster?” asked Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert.

Washington, D.C.-based Commercial Alert’s goal is to prevent commercialism from “exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family.” The group also is pushing for TV networks to prominently disclose product placement as advertising, and is among several groups urging the Federal Trade Commission to require that all Web search firms label and separate advertising from editorial search results.

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