Why Disney's Junk Food Ad Ban Marks the Future of Food Reform

The biggest news in the kid-and-food world yesterday was an announcement in which Disney promised to phase out the advertising of junk food on its child-directed television channels, web sites and radio stations. The initiative should be enthusiastically applauded.
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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 I've discussed on The Lunch Tray, 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 sugary 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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