Disney To Ban Junk Food Advertising to Kids: My Thoughts

The biggest news in the kid-and-food world yesterday was a joint announcement by the White House and the Walt Disney Company in which Disney promised to phase out the advertising of junk food on its child-directed television channels, web sites and radio stations.  The ban will include Saturday-morning cartoons airing on ABC stations owned by Disney.

In addition, the company introduced a new “Mickey Check” logo for food items meeting Disney’s updated nutritional standards.  The logo will appear on Disney-licensed grocery products, recipes on the company’s website and on kids’ meals and fruit cards at Disney parks and resorts.

Disney will also continue its practice (instituted in 2006) of automatically including healthful beverages and sides, such as carrots and low-fat milk, in all kids’ meals served in Disney’s theme parks (unlike McDonald’s recently “improved” Happy Meal where parents must opt-in for milk over soda), while promising to further reduce the sodium in its kids meals and to offer more balanced kids’ breakfast options.

Other aspects of the company’s “Magic of Healthy Living” initiative are laid out here.

So what do we think of all this?

In two years of reporting on toothless industry “self regulation” of children’s food advertising, I’ve learned the devil is in the details.   As we’ve discussed here, under the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (the largest industry self-regulatory scheme), major companies are free to set their own loose standards for “better for you” foods, allowing all manner of junk to pass muster.

But in this case, Disney has clearly adopted stricter set of nutritional standards which, according to the company, “are aligned to federal standards, promote fruit and vegetable consumption and call for limiting calories and reducing saturated fat, sodium, and sugar.”

The standards are certainly not perfect; it took a little while, but I was able to find some less-than-ideal cereals which would still make Disney’s advertising cut:

Experts have also questioned whether yet another “good for you” seal in the supermarket is going to create more consumer confusion, and I’m guessing that some of my colleagues in the food reform world will decry the logo as the self-interested promotion of packaged foods which should be avoided in favor of fresh, whole foods.

Those are valid concerns, but I think Disney’s initiative — especially the ad ban —  should be enthusiastically applauded.

The food industry currently directs almost two billion dollars of food advertising toward our children, most of it for unhealthful products, and we know that exposure to television junk food ads is a significant risk factor for childhood obesity.  Moreover, because children lack the critical cognitive faculties to fairly evaluate marketing messages, it has been argued that the First Amendment is no bar to the regulation of this predatory practice.  Yet, to date, even purely voluntary guidelines for food advertising to children have been easily thwarted by food lobbyists, and there’s no reason to think that legislative efforts in the near future will be more successful.

That said, I think we have no choice but to put our faith in the free market.  And this latest move by Disney signals to me that the company — hardly a touchy-feely nonprofit — sees significant marketing potential in doing the right thing.  (Speaking as just one parent, I’ll certainly give my dollars and brand loyalty to any company that makes it easier for me to navigate healthful choices for my kids.)  Moreover, it’s been noted that there is likely to be a ripple effect if Disney rivals such as Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network feel pressure to follow the company’s ban on junk food advertising.   If so, that would be huge news indeed.

My bottom line:  corporate initiatives like this one are always worthy of skepticism, and some will be deservedly bashed as empty “health-washing.”  But for better or worse, private actors — not our federal legislators, who seem inescapably captive to Big Food’s dollars — may be the future of food reform.  So in this case, I’m giving Disney high marks for making significant strides to protect our children from the worst junk food advertising out there.

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  1. says

    Recently my husband showed me a Twitter post with a picture of a bunch of bananas with a Madagascar sticker on them. I beleive the person who posted the pic was feeling somewhat violated == as in now the adverstising is on my fruit too, kind of sentiment.

    While yes, I too, feel bombared with marketing at every turn, I applaud any effort that aims to get parents to purchase fresh over processed, to spend more of their grocery bill in the produce section vs the snack ilse.

    So go ahead Disney, stick some logo’s on my fruit.

    Perhaps if enough big companies talk about healthy eating and put some of their money where their mouth is, perhaps a change, however small, will be made in the way Americans shop and eat.

    • says

      I totally agree – put stickers on all my produce! LOL We are a plant-based family. My daughter has never been to McDonalds, never had cartoon character cereal, etc. We just bought some bananas with the Madagascar stickers on them. It was fun for her to pick the bananas with the stickers she wanted. I wish all the fruit had stickers on them – I can see how it could really encourage other kids to see healthy food as fun.

      That’s not a bad idea for picky eaters…..putting stickers on your fruit/vegetables even when you get home. Hmmmm……

  2. Jinni says

    I’m a little wary of the fact that it will take effect in THREE years (due to existing contracts). Why the early announcement then? I assume it’s to build up good will while still selling the profitable craptastic food. I’m also EXTREMELY wary of Michelle Obama coming out to support a corporate announcement. I’ll skip the rant on corporations running the country, but you get the drift. The announcement should have been made in 2015.

    • says

      Yes, these “early announcements” raise red flags with me as well. Mainly because people have such short attention spans that most will have totally forgotten about this by the time 2015 rolls around (though we can count on Bettina & Friends to keep a close eye on things for us :-) .)

      That being said, I agree with Bettina that we don’t have a lot of choice but to put some (small) amount of trust in Disney to follow through on their promises. Also, remember that corporations are nothing more than legally-organized groups of PEOPLE – and thus are no better, and no worse, than the people who make them up. Alas, we are all imperfect in our own little ways…


  3. says

    I’m curious as to whether this applies to ALL of Disney’s broadcast holdings. Namely, they own ABC and others (ESPN, I believe?) as well as their subsidiary cable stations (ABC Family, etc.). It would seem to me that this is a bigger win if one of the three major non-cable networks were included on the deal and it’d put some pressure on the other two to make some changes.


  4. mommm!!! says

    Here’s how this plays out in my cynical mind:

    Somehow, Disney owns something to do with vitamins. (I don’t know if they really do or not but humor me) So all the junk food companies pump up their products with added vitamins to get the Disney seal of approval to advertise on their channels. Disney then makes huge donations to the Obamas to get their visible approval and some good publicity for the Disney brand.

    Ok, ok, all cynicism aside, I can’t help but to applaud Disney. I will however, be interested to see which products actually make the cut. Only then will we know.

  5. Marykay says

    I agree with your conclusions in the blog post. Just wondering though, commercial advertising is different from the products that actually have characters on the packaging. Do they plan to stop putting princesses ect on packages of junk like fruit snacks? That would be a huge miracle!

    • mommm!!! says

      Right?! Fruit snacks were the bane of my existence through my son’s toddler years because you simply could not escape them. My son’s friends’ parents carried them by the box in their diaper bags. His preschool bought them in bulk and they were offered several times a day. Every Disney character ever drawn is on a fruit snacks box that takes up a full half of one grocery isle from top to bottom. Fruit roll ups, gushers, tape, etc…all nonsense products. I’m so glad I’m past those years in my child rearing lol!

  6. says

    I am overall happy with Disney for this. They announced it early to let us know what they will be doing. They will not be taking any new products that do not fall into their health guidelines but they can’t break the contracts that went into effect before the decision is made. So over the next 3 years you will start seeing less junk food ads as the contracts run out. It is just in 3 years they will be completely gone.


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