The Walt Disney Co. Tuesday became the first major media company to ban ads for junk food on its television channels, radio stations and websites, hoping to stop kids from eating badly by taking the temptation away.
U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama called it a “game changer” that is sure to send a message to the rest of the children’s entertainment industry.
“Just a few years ago if you had told me or any other mom or dad in America that our kids wouldn’t see a single ad for junk food while they watched their favourite cartoons on a major TV network, we wouldn’t have believed you,” said Obama, who has headed a campaign to curb child obesity.
The food that doesn’t meet Disney’s nutritional standards goes beyond candy bars and fast food meals. Capri Sun juice (too much sugar) and Oscar Mayer Lunchables snacks (high sodium) won’t be advertised. Any cereal with more than 10 grams of sugar per serving is also off the air. A full meal can’t be more than 600 calories.
Disney’s rules – which won’t take effect until 2015 – follow a controversial proposal in New York to take supersized drinks over 16 ounces out of convenience stores, movie theatres and restaurants, removing choices to try and influence behaviour.
Getting rid of junk food ads will make it easier to keep the family on a healthy diet, said Nadine Haskell, a mother of two sons, 8 and 11.
“If they see a commercial on TV, then the next time we go to the grocery store they’ll see it and say they want to try it,” said Haskell, of Columbus, Ohio.
Disney declined to say how much revenue it stands to lose from banning unhealthy food. CEO Bob Iger said there might be a short-term reduction in advertising revenue, but he hopes that companies will eventually adjust and create new products that meet the standards.
The ban would apply to TV channels such is Disney XD, children’s programming on the ABC network, Radio Disney and Disney-owned websites aimed at families with young children. The company’s Disney Channel has sponsorships, but does not run ads.
Aviva Must, chairwoman of the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts School of Medicine, said Disney could succeed where the government has made little progress.
“There seems to be limited taste for government regulation,” said Must, who has studied childhood obesity for decades. “So I think a large company like Disney taking a stand and putting in a policy with teeth is a good step.”
Even though many fast-food chains and food companies are rolling out healthier options like apples and salads, Disney said it still could deny the companies’ ads.
Leslie Goodman, Disney’s senior vice-president of corporate citizenship, says Disney will consider a company’s broader offerings when deciding whether to approve ads.
“It’s not just about reformulating a meal for a single advertising opportunity,” Goodman said. The company will need to show that if offers a range of healthy options, she said.
Disney said there are ads currently running on Disney channels that would not meet the new standards. Two Kraft products won’t make the cut: Oscar Mayer Lunchables meat-and-cracker snacks, which have 28 per cent of the recommended daily sodium intake, and Capri Sun, which has just 60 calories per serving but has added sweeteners.
Disney declined to name other companies’ offerings but said most sugared cereals won’t be allowed.
Kraft said it welcomed Disney’s decision, noting that it advertises very few brands to children under age 12.
Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that while some snack foods of limited nutritional value may still be advertised, the worst of the junk foods will be eliminated under the new policy.
“Disney’s announcement really puts a lot of pressure on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and other media to do the same,” she added.
A spokesman for Nickelodeon declined to comment.
Disney launched internal nutrition guidelines in 2006, with the goal of making 85 per cent of the food and drinks served at its parks and resorts healthy. The remaining 15 per cent was reserved for special treats, such as cake for birthday celebrations. The company also stopped using toys in kid’s meals to advertise its movies.
Disney on Tuesday also introduced its “Mickey Check” seal of approval for nutritious foods sold in stores, online and at its parks and resorts.
“The emotional connection kids have to our characters and stories gives us a unique opportunity to continue to inspire and encourage them to lead healthier lives,” Iger said.
The Better Business Bureau and 16 major food companies, including Coca-Cola Co., Burger King Worldwide Holdings Inc. and Mars Inc. have also pledged to ensure by 2014 that ads aimed at children is devoted only to better-for-you foods.
McDonald’s, which is part of the initiative, said in a statement Tuesday that it will continue a dialogue with Disney about its new guidelines.