Promoting nutrition, Disney to restrict junk-food ads

June 5, 2012, The New York Times

By Brooks Barnes

The Walt Disney Company, in an effort to address concerns about entertainment’s role in childhood obesity, plans to announce on June 5 that all products advertised on its child-focused television channels, radio stations, and websites must comply with a strict new set of nutritional standards.The restrictions on ads extend to Saturday-morning cartoons on ABC stations owned by Disney. Under the new rules, products like Capri Sun drinks and Kraft Lunchables meals — both current Disney advertisers — along with a wide range of candy, sugared cereal and fast food, will no longer be acceptable advertising material.

The initiative, which Disney plans to detail June 5 at a Washington news conference with the first lady, Michelle Obama, stretches into other areas. For instance, Disney will reduce the amount of sodium by 25 percent in the 12 million children’s meals served annually at its theme parks, and create what it calls fun public service announcements promoting child exercise and healthy eating.

The move follows the announcement last week of a plan by New York City to ban the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks amid increasing concern about childhood obesity in America.

Disney said that in adopting the new advertising standards it was largely following recommendations proposed last year by federal regulators. The suggestions were aimed at inducing the food industry to overhaul the way it marketed things like cereal, soda, and snacks to children.

Food companies have vociferously fought government regulation on advertising, saying they can take steps on their own. Disney acknowledged it would most likely lose some advertising revenue — it declined to say how much — but said that the benefits outweighed the downside. (Disney Channel does not currently accept traditional ads, although a range of promotions and sponsorships are allowed; other channels like Disney XD are supported by commercials.)

Disney’s ad restrictions apply to any programming targeted to children under 12, which includes popular live-action programs as well as cartoons.

Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chairman, said he felt strongly that “companies in a position to help with solutions to childhood obesity should do just that,” but added: “This is not altruistic. This is about smart business.”

Taking steps to combat childhood obesity allows Disney the opportunity to polish its brand as one families can trust — something that drives sales of everything from Pixar DVDs to baby clothes to theme park vacations. In addition, Disney has carefully studied the marketplace and executives say they believe there is increasing consumer demand for more nutritious food.

Mr. Iger noted that health food for children had already become “a very, very solid business” for Disney. Since 2006 consumers have purchased about two billion servings of Disney-licensed servings of fruit and vegetables, according to the company.

Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said Disney’s plan put it “far ahead of competitors.” At the same time, she cautioned that Disney’s guidelines still fell short of what her organization would like to see, particularly for cereal. Disney’s new standards require cereal to contain less than 10 grams of sugar a serving, for instance, while Ms. Wootan would prefer about six grams.

“This limits the marketing of the worst junk foods, but it won’t mean you’re only going to see ads for apples, bananas and oranges, either,” she said.

On June 5, Disney will also introduce what it calls Mickey Check in grocery store aisles: Disney-licensed products that meet criteria for limited calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar can display a logo — Mickey Mouse ears and a check mark — on their packaging. The logos will include the slogan, “Good For You — Fun Too!”

Some elements of Disney’s campaign — the Mickey Check, in particular — could revive parental criticism that the company has a way of moving into areas it does not belong, such as approval over what foods children eat.

Moreover, consumers have also come to distrust or ignore healthy eating symbols on packaging because so many food companies have introduced self-serving varieties, said Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

“Here comes Disney with yet another symbol, and it’s too early to say whether this will simply add to the chaos and confusion or actually help steer parents and kids as they shop,” Mr. Brownell said.

Still, Mr. Brownell, who was given an advance briefing of Disney’s plans, said the effort was “enormously important.” He cautioned that he had not yet deeply examined Disney’s nutritional guidelines, but said “they appear quite good.”

Disney developed the new nutrition standards with the assistance of two child health and wellness experts: James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and Keith T. Ayoob, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

The company’s standards are based on the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Federal Trade Commission’s proposed guidelines for food marketing to children. Disney also looked at the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-policing effort by food giants like Burger King and Campbell Soup to set their own marketing limits.

Disney’s guidelines will be available starting June 5 at

Disney’s new guidelines, which will not take effect until 2015 because of long-term contracts with advertisers, are likely to have a ripple effect through the children’s entertainment industry. Rivals like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network will face pressure to follow Disney’s lead. Advertisers spend some $950 million annually on television tailored to children under 12, according to industry estimates.

“With this new initiative, Disney is doing what no major media company has ever done before in the U.S. — and what I hope every company will do going forward,” Mrs. Obama said in a statement.

Food companies will also feel the effects. Giants like Pepsi and Kellogg in 2007, trying to squelch calls for government regulation, said they would stop advertising products that failed to meet various nutritional standards to children under 12. Food companies then started pushing healthier items and reformulating junk food products.

Disney has sent similar dominoes falling in the past. In 2006, Disney said it would sharply curtail the use of its name and characters with foods high in sugar, salt and fat. Mickey Mouse stopped appearing on boxes of Pop-Tarts, and Buzz Lightyear and his “Toy Story” pals disappeared from McDonald’s Happy Meals. Within months, Nickelodeon and Discovery Kids announced similar restrictions; the 2007 effort by food companies to reel in advertising was also linked to Disney’s lead.

As part of its June 5 announcement, Disney will unveil a tightened version of the nutritional standards it first adopted in 2006, including a required additional 10 percent reduction in sugar in yogurt and flavored milk products.

“We need to motivate consumers to make changes, and Disney, because of its sheer size and brand power, can do that better than anybody,” Mr. Ayoob said.

What do you think of Disney’s new food marketing restrictions? Do you think they will help curb childhood obesity in the long run?

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