With an endorsement from first lady Michelle Obama for its effort, Walt Disney Co. confirmed this morning that it is going to apply new standards to food ads aimed at children and their families during programming for kids. The entertainment giant says it will try "to inspire kids to lead healthier lifestyles."
The changes, which go into effect by 2015, apply to "all food and beverage products advertised, sponsored, or promoted on Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior, Radio Disney, and Disney-owned online destinations," the company said.
According to The New York Times, "the restrictions on ads extend to Saturday-morning cartoons on ABC stations owned by Disney."
What Disney says it is doing, basically, is applying a "nutrition guideline" to the products that are advertised on its platforms. So, for example, a breakfast cereal can be advertised if a 1-ounce serving has:
-- Fewer or less than 130 calories.
-- Less than 10 grams of sugar.
-- Zero grams of trans fat.
Disney claims to be "the first major media company to introduce new standards for food advertising on programming targeting kids and families."
In a statement, the first lady called the company's decision "truly a game changer for the health of our children."
Some nutritionists are also praising Disney's effort. "This is landmark, because a major media company is taking responsibility for what food they advertise to children," Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told USA Today.
Pledges to improve advertising aimed at children have come and gone in the past, though, with little apparent effect. As The Salt reported last October:
"Under a voluntary agreement, beverage companies have pledged to improve advertising directed to kids. But 'our results clearly show that the beverage industry's self-regulatory pledges are not working,' says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center, which studied children's and teens' exposure to TV ads for soda."
Also, Disney's program, as we said, applies nutrition guidelines that come with small suggested serving sizes that many parents will agree are hard to enforce on hungry and thirsty children.
And, Wootan told USA Today, "there are still going to be SpaghettiOs and things like that in the mix," especially if they come with "better-for-you" promises.
Disney also announced today that it is going to "further reduce sugar and sodium" in the foods it licenses and sells at its parks. In addition, it is introducing a "Mickey Check" icon "that calls out nutritious food and menu items sold in stores, online, and at restaurants and food venues at its U.S. parks and resorts."
Later today, All Things Considered is set to have more on the story. We'll add to this post from its report. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.
Update at 3:30 p.m. ET: Nutritionist Marion Nestle told All Things Considered co-host Robert Siegel that Disney's decision "is a big deal. Disney is an enormous company with enormous reach" and this effort will "send a signal to a lot of other companies to do the same thing." But, she added, "I want to see what's going to happen in practice," not just the promise.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Walt Disney has a message for its food and beverage advertisers: get healthier. Because Disney will stop running ads for junk food during children's programming. Well, not just now but in 2015. That is essentially what the company said today when it announced a plan to advertise only food products that meet the company's nutrition standards. Those standards call for limiting calories and reducing fat, salt and sugar. Here's Disney Chairman and CEO Robert Iger.
ROBERT IGER: Parents tell us they need our support, and we're listening because the better we meet the needs and expectations of families, the brighter our future looks. And as it turns out, doing the right thing for kids just happens to be a smart strategy for the Walt Disney Company and for its businesses.
SIEGEL: Iger appeared with Michelle Obama, who is campaigning for better nutrition. Joining me now to talk about this is Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and the author of "Why Calories Count." Welcome to the program once again.
MARION NESTLE: Glad to be here.
SIEGEL: How big a deal is this?
NESTLE: It's a big deal. Disney is an enormous company with an enormous reach and an enormous influence over children and if it's taking a stance in favor of health, that's going to send a signal to a lot of other companies to do the same thing.
SIEGEL: What it's applying here are Disney's nutrition guidelines. What do you think of Disney's nutrition guidelines?
NESTLE: Well, there are a couple of things that are at issue here. One is the guidelines themselves, which involve serious reduction in the salt in the products that are served and marketed and less of a reduction in sugars. These are tweaking of processed food products. I mean, all of this is about obesity and if Disney really wants to do something about obesity, it's unfortunately stuck in the position of either having to sell less food, or having to reduce the portion size so kids are eating less and fewer calories.
That is something that none of these companies are talking about because from a business perspective, they can't talk about it.
SIEGEL: But if you were looking, say, at a bellwether food, something which someone in this case Disney might classify as acceptably healthful, but you think should be classified as unhealthful, what food be right there at the...
NESTLE: Well, I'm not sure that that's the right question to ask. Obesity is about calories. People have to eat less and hopefully eat better. So what Disney's guidelines are aimed at doing is to help people eat better. But if they're still eating as much, the calories will still be there. It's not changing - reducing the salt doesn't change the calories.
And then the other issue is the three-year wait. I can understand why they have to do that. They have contractual obligations so this is a long, slow process. But what struck me so strongly about the Disney announcement was that it reminded me so much of the announcement that Kraft foods made in the early 2000s about what they were going to be doing with those products.
A lot of the things they promised to do never happened. And so this is one of those situations where it sounds really, really good, but I want to see what's going to happen in practice. I want to see how they're going to stop advertising these products to children under the age of 12 and whether that will make any real difference in their advertising.
SIEGEL: We have a couple of different examples this week of very public statements about nutrition. New York City, city government planning to ban very big, sugary drinks, and in this case a company planning to impose its own guidelines. This isn't a government, Disney. It's a company that's made billions off of talking animals, frankly. We're not talking about a science-based organization here.
NESTLE: What we're seeing is everyone trying to figure out how to make it easier for people to eat more healthfully without having to do a lot of serious thinking about it. Mayor Bloomberg's approach to this was to try to reduce the portion size of soft drinks, which is one way to reduce the calories. Disney's idea is a different one. They're going to stop marketing certain kinds of foods to children, and for that they deserve wild, enthusiastic applause.
I don't think junk food should be marketed to children at all under any circumstances.
SIEGEL: Nutritionist Marion Nestle, thank you very much for talking with us once again.
NESTLE: A pleasure.
AUDIE CORNISH HOST: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.