Disney bans junk-food advertising on programs for children

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Walt Disney Co., acknowledging the powerful role that television can play in influencing children’s behavior, announced that it has instituted a junk-food advertising ban on programs for kids.

Along with its current healthful-foods initiative in its theme parks, Disney will begin imposing strict new standards for food and beverage advertising on its boy-centric network Disney XD, during Saturday morning shows on Disney-owned ABC television stations, on Radio Disney and online. Disney Channel and Disney Junior, which are not ad-supported but receive brand sponsorships, also would be covered under the nutrition guidelines.

First Lady Michelle Obama, who has made fighting the childhood obesity epidemic and promoting healthful eating hallmarks of her time in the White House, praised Disney’s initiative Tuesday during a news conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

“This new initiative is truly a game changer for the health of our children,” Obama said. “So, for years, people told us that no matter what we did to get our kids to eat well and exercise, we would never solve our childhood obesity crisis until companies changed the way that they sell food to our children. We all know the conventional wisdom about that .... Today, Disney has turned that conventional wisdom on its head.”

Disney joins other children’s television networks in promoting healthier lifestyles for children. Viacom Inc.’s Nickelodeon and Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network instituted policies in 2007 that restrict the use of their characters to products that meet specific nutritional guidelines. Nickelodeon applies the standards developed by the food industry to govern advertising to viewers under age 12.

Food and beverage advertisers who seek to promote their products on Disney’s child-focused cable networks will be required to meet guidelines regarding serving size, calories, and fat and sugar content. The standards follow federal recommendations.

Disney’s stricter rules won’t take full effect until 2015, both to honor existing contractual obligations with advertisers and to provide companies time to reformulate products.

Six years ago, Disney instituted healthier food options at its theme parks in Anaheim and Orlando, Fla., automatically including carrots and low-fat milk in children’s meals unless parents request otherwise. Its consumer products division changed its licensed food program so that 85% of its offerings comply with the company’s nutrition guidelines. Disney even chose to stop licensing its film characters for McDonald’s Happy Meals, citing the link between fast food and childhood obesity.

Regarding Disney’s latest move to restrict junk-food advertising, Kanter Media, an advertising research firm, estimated that spending for this category on Disney-owned channels and Saturday morning children’s programming on ABC totaled $7.2 million in 2011.

On Tuesday, Disney also introduced the Mickey Check, an icon that would identify nutritious foods and menu items sold in stores, online and at restaurants and kiosks in its parks.

“We’ve taken steps across our company to support better choices for families,” Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Robert A. Iger said in a statement. “And now, we’re taking the next important step forward by setting new food advertising standards for kids.”

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit advocacy group, applauded Disney’s announcement but questioned the three-year delay until the stricter rules take full effect. “It’s a step in the right direction,” said Josh Golin, the group’s associate director. “I wish it wasn’t such a slow step.”

Golin said he would have preferred federal regulations that would apply to all companies and could be enforced uniformly. But such efforts have been quashed in Congress, he said.

“Self-regulation tends to be self-serving,” Golin said. “Companies tend to shape it to serve their own needs. And the big thing is enforcement. What’s going to happen if Disney doesn’t follow its own guidelines?”

Last year, an interagency group that included the Federal Trade Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed a set of guidelines for foods marketed directly to children ages 2 to 17.

The group found that cookies, cake, pizza and soda or energy drinks are among the top sources of calories that children consume, and that chips and French fries make up half the vegetables they eat. The food industry spent more than $1.6 billion in 2006 alone to market products to kids that are high in calories and sugar but low in nutritional value.

Many parents make the effort to prepare nutritious meals and healthful snacks, Obama said. But when kids turn on their favorite shows, those efforts are undermined during the commercial breaks.

“That’s why I am so thrilled about [Tuesday’s] announcements,” the first lady said. Obama has partnered with other children’s television networks to get out her healthy living message.

Last year, the first lady joined in Nickelodeon’s Worldwide Day of Play, an effort to encourage kids to become more active through her Let’s Move campaign. The network went dark from noon to 3 p.m. to encourage kids to move away from the TV and get active. Cartoon Network’s summer-long initiative, Move It Movement, also was designed to encourage children to live healthier lifestyles.