Junk-Food Ads

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Last month, on the heels of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement that the city would seek to limit the size of sugary beverages sold at city-regulated establishments, came an announcement that generated far less controversy yet may have a much greater nutritional impact on the country. At a news conference with First Lady Michelle Obama, Walt Disney Company chairman and CEO Robert A. Iger announced that beginning in 2015, the company would impose nutritional standards for all advertisements aimed at children under 12 on Disney-owned television channels. And as one would expect of a company in Disney’s position, it didn’t just stop at nutrition guidelines — it created a new initiative called Disney Magic of Healthy Living.

A video created to launch the program, featuring Disney Channel stars Brenda Song and Nick Jonas (who has Type 1 diabetes) as well as Obama, explains that “eating better and getting more active is easier than you think” and announces a Web site featuring food, cooking, and exercise tips, aimed especially at kids and featuring stars from Disney-owned TV shows. And according to a New York Times article on the health initiative, Disney will also license a symbol, called the Mickey Check, that identifies food products meeting the company’s newly developed nutrition standards.

Those standards, according to a food policy expert quoted in the article, “appear quite good.” To qualify for the Mickey Check — or for television ads starting in 2015 — a product must fall under a calorie limit based on what food category it best fits into. A complete meal, for example, must contain fewer than 600 calories, while a side dish must contain fewer than 200. There are also limits on sugar, saturated fat, sodium, and added trans fat based on the kind of food and the portion size (the trans fat limit is always zero grams). For example, a one-ounce serving of a breakfast cereal must contain less than 10 grams of sugar, and a milk product must contain less than 2 grams of saturated fat per eight-ounce serving. When evaluating advertising requests under the new policy, the company stated, it will consider the broader nutritional offerings of a brand or company, not just whether a couple of products meet the official nutrition guidelines. This means that, presumably, a fast-food chain with a few healthy options but mostly unhealthy items will not be able to advertise during children’s programming.

It is possible that this step by Disney will lead to even more widely ranging effects, especially if other media companies with children’s programming follow suit. It is also more likely that food companies will reformulate at least some products to fit Disney’s new guidelines. This is one reason, according to Disney, that they aren’t set to go into effect until 2015. But even as Disney’s efforts are widely hailed as a step in the right direction, they also raise some questions. For example, is it appropriate to advertise junk food to kids older than 12 — an age at which they may encounter more peer pressure and have more power to buy their own food? Should there be government regulations to ensure that advertising restrictions are based on public health needs? And, given that young children rarely buy their own food, how much responsibility for children’s nutrition properly belongs to their parents, or to food companies that advertise to them?

What do you think — does Disney’s effort mark an important step forward, or should ads for unhealthy foods face further restrictions? Leave a comment below!

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