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On Tuesday, The Walt Disney Company announced that it will require advertisers on its media properties (including ABC Saturday morning cartoons) to adhere to a strict new set of nutritional guidelines. The guidelines limit overall calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar per serving. The New York Times reported that Disney introduced the initiative at news conference with First Lady Michelle Obama, and that the initiative also includes nutritional changes at Disney theme parks. The changes will not take place until 2015 to limit conflict with long-term advertising contracts already in place.
Coming on the heels of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial announcement that New York will limit soft drink serving sizes to 16 ounces last week, Disney’s move is sure to stir some controversy. Food manufacturers in particular have been fighting against any crackdown in advertising to children. But Disney is making this move ahead of regulation and other television networks (although similar restrictions could be in place for everyone by 2015.)
It’s no secret that childhood obesity has risen to epidemic proportions. According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, nearly a fifth of all children (17%) are obese – and that rate has tripled in a generation. This is the primary cause behind a surge in juvenile diabetes and other obesity-related diseases which has enormous cost implications for healthcare in the United States. As these children age and their societal costs begin to mount, regulatory intervention is inevitable. Disney’s brand is based on being a safe choice for kids that is acceptable to parents. Once upon a time (before Pirates of the Caribbean and other brand extensions), a parent could pluck any Disney-branded video from the shelf and know it would be safe for a child of any age to watch. With a mountain of scientific evidence and increasing consumer awareness, it was obvious to Disney that products advertised on Disney-owned channels were harming children. The market for healthy food for children is growing, too. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Disney took this step. They chose a good moment to do so, and have gained credibility with some former critics. The bigger question is what other networks and the brands that create these high-sugar, sodium, fat or calorie foods should do? They should follow Disney. Why? Any great brand wants loyal lifetime consumers. When a product that the brand makes harms the consumer it’s not just bad for the consumer, it’s bad for the brand. Twenty years ago the evidence might have been murky on the long-term effects of fatty, salty, sugary snacks. The picture is clearer today. Part of the backlash to Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement on drink size was that it takes power away from adults to choose. That may be debatable in itself, but there’s no question that children are not the same as adults. It’s also fine to say that parents should be able to make their own decisions about what children eat, but parents know that advertising has a huge effect on children who are not equipped to make sound decisions about healthy eating. Now, however, we know that we’ve raised an entire generation of unhealthy kids. Brands who refuse to accept this reality and find profitable ways to market to children without degrading their health will travel a tough road in the future.