Thursday, January 20, 2011

SpongeBob and Hunger: Media Literacy, Ethics, Balanced Diets, and yes, even MATH

We've been talking about ethics a lot lately.  What makes something ethical? How do you decide? I've mostly offered a Kantian set of criteria, when asked for my opinion.

We've also been watching a lot of Nickelodeon.

Noor noticed, with the newest Burger King SpongeBob giveaway (Patrick's pants change color when they get wet!!!!), that there are a lot of SpongeBob endorsed food products.

Last night, on the way home from a friend's house, Noor asked if we could have a SpongeBob shopping day. I asked a few questions and she clarified that she wanted to see if it is possible to eat a full day's worth of food with only SpongeBob products to choose from.

This won't be the first time our food stamps helped pay for an experiment. We talked about that too: the nature of food stamps, where the funds come from, who gets them, how they're used.

Back to ethics.  We looked online for a list of all the available SB endorsed food products on the market. We couldn't find one, but we did find this article from 2007, from which I read this snippet to Noor:

“Nickelodeon will be adopting a policy in which the use of licensed characters on food packaging will be limited to products that meet ‘better for you’ criteria, as established by marketing partners in association with government dietary guidelines,” she said.
Nickelodeon licenses its characters to Kellogg and General Mills, among other companies.
Ms. Zarghami said the only exception is for special-occasion foods such as birthday cakes, which kids aren’t likely to eat all the time. Disney has a similar exception.
A Nickelodeon spokesman said the changes are the result of talks with health and government groups.

The above policy was to be enacted in 2009. As we're in the early days of 2011, Noor reckons that Nickelodeon must believe that Burger King is a 'better for you' product.

Her next question was: "Better for you than what? Dog poop? What does that mean?"

I said I think it means foods that don't have a lot of sugar or fat, probably.


B--"If given a choice, would someone who likes SB choose chose plain packaging or something with the sponge?"


B--What if the SB product had more sugar, fat, chemicals than other foods?

N--Then they're tricking the kids.

Which brought us back to ethics, again.


We decided to go shopping and see what SB had to offer. Noor chose Target over another grocery story because she said they were a more SB kind of store.

Noor passed on the SB cookies

And on the chicken soup

We found seven food products and bought five.  We observed that some SB foods were about 10 cents more than the same food without a SB theme. Noor also noted that for every SB product, you could choose the same thing, without SB packaging.  "It is how they get kids to want that thing," she said.

When we got home, we talked about the foods we'd found and how content Noor would be to eat only these foods all day long, without anything else to choose from.  So, "Could a kid live on SB food and nothing else?"  Probably.  Would they be satisfied? Healthy?  That's a lot harder to answer!

We also talked about different theories about what makes a "balanced diet" and Noor categorized the SB foods according to their food group

SInce Noor loves pie charts, we chose this pie chart for the purpose of our experiment

And then we plotted the SB foods on a graph

Conclusion: Noor doesn't think she'd be happy on a SB-only diet for too long. She commented that Target didn't carry any fresh fruits or vegetables with SB and we'll probably check out a few other stores to see if there are more choices.

Is using SB to sell food to kids ethical?  No, Noor says.  If you just ate dairy, grains and sugar all day, your body wouldn't be healthy. 

But what if companies used SB to get kids to also eat fruit and vegetables?

That's good, Noor says, but making kids want something because of a cute Sponge is "almost not really ethical."


  1. Wow, this is great :) I almost can't wait for my LOs to get bigger to do this type of stuff. Thanks so much for the inspiration and sharing this!

  2. Really interesting, start to finish. Lots to think about. I hadn't ever thought of looking at all of the products with a particular "cartoon" theme, to see what variety there is- or isn't.
    We've done a variety of shopping trips with themes, but this really went beyond that, which is very cool.

  3. Christina--you're welcome! I'll let Noor know that you enjoyed it.

    Linda: Yea, and it all came from Noor, which is the best part. It was awesome to be able to say, "Yes! Lets go buy every SB food we can find." Lots of questions, for sure, with not as many clearly defined answers as one would have expected.

    We still have almost the whole box of taco shells and half the box of fruit gummies left over. The instant Mac&Cheese was declared inedible.

    btw....I notice you've got a sword in your hand....any chance you have experience making chain mail? Noor really wants to make some, and I'm trying to figure out the best way to help her go about it--any ideas?