New Disney Rules Limit Character Use in Kids’ Foods

Oct 16, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The Walt Disney Co. on Monday unveiled new licensing guidelines limiting most representation of its characters in children’s foods to healthier offerings.

The move is one of the biggest efforts yet from marketers and media companies, who have come under increasing attack by lawmakers who say such marketing is contributing to increased childhood obesity, charges the companies vociferously deny. Some consumer groups called for Disney to go further and impose limits on the kinds of kids’ food products that can be advertised on the ABC Network.

Disney said the guidelines take effect immediately for new licensing deals but will be phased in as existing contracts expire and will apply internationally. Most current Disney licensing deals end by 2008, but a Kellogg cereal deal has another seven years to run.

The new guidelines limit the use of the Disney name and Disney characters in kids’ products to those lower in overall fat, in saturated fat and in sugar. Disney also will alter kids’ meals at Disney parks to make them more healthful, including banning trans fats at McDonald’s restaurants in the parks.

Disney licenses its classic cartoon characters and in the past has licensed Pixar Studios characters for fast-food marketing. Disney Consumer Products has deals with Kellogg and its Keebler division and with Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid, and Disney has existing licensing deals with McDonald’s for Happy Meals.

“Disney will be providing healthier options for families that seek them, whether at our parks or through our broad array of licensed foods,” Disney President and CEO Robert Iger said in a statement. “The Disney brand and characters are in a unique position to market food that kids will want and parents will feel good about giving them.”

Disney said its guidelines were drawn with input from the health community.

While legislators including Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and several FCC commissioners have criticized food ads and demanded change from media companies and marketers, Disney said its action was a result of consumer demand for healthier products.

“We have been looking at this for quite some time,” said Zenia Mucha, executive VP of corporate communications for Disney. “We recognize that parents have been looking for choices in children’s nutrition. We want to be part of the solution to that goal.”

Sen. Harkin commended Disney’s actions, saying he hoped “it will spark a positive shift in the way the entire food and entertainment industry operates.”

“In the midst of a serious childhood obesity epidemic, these are the kind of proactive steps the industry can take to put an end to this growing problem,” Sen. Harkin said. “I hope that this move is only a first step, and that we can continue to do more to protect our children’s health.”

Federal Trade Commission Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras called Disney’s action “precisely the kind of industry response we hoped to see. Disney and a few other leaders are gradually changing the nutritional landscape of foods marketed to children. I hope and expect that their example will prompt others to recognize that marketing healthy choices can be both good for kids and good for business.”

Consumer groups had more mixed reaction.

Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised Disney but said the company should go further.

“Few companies are as visible among families with children than Disney, so it is welcome news,” she said in a statement. “Disney’s new practices put it in a much more family-friendly position [than] its competitors, notably Nickelodeon, whose programming is filled with junk-food ads and whose characters grace all kinds of junk-food packaging.”

She also suggested that Disney should re-examine food ads on ABC.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Ralph Nader’s Commercial Alert, group critical of excessive marketing, said the guidelines “are more notable for what they omit than what they include.”

“If Disney really cared about kids, it would stop all marketing of junk food to children, including on ABC,” he said, adding that Disney’s nutrition standards are “extremely weak.”

Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said, “That industry is making any changes at all is a tribute to the hard work of activists around the country working to hold corporations responsible for their actions.

“But an entertainment company shouldn’t be in the business of marketing food directly to children at all—and neither should food companies. If parents really are going to be the gatekeepers for their children’s health, companies should be targeting them, not their kids,” she said.