Nutrition Push May Be a Little Better for Kids, Great for Disney

Experts say new guidelines to curb junk food advertising could be very good for the media company.

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Disney is pushing healthier food options. But will kids bite?

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"With this new initiative, Disney is doing what no major media company has ever done before in the U.S.--and what I hope every company will do going forward."

That is Michelle Obama's view on Disney's new guidelines to curb junk food advertising. It's publicity that money can't buy—the First Lady simultaneously heralding your company as a leader in its field and inviting other companies to follow suit. The decision clearly comes with political heft behind it, but how meaningful of a change the company is making remains in question.

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Under the new guidelines, all food and beverages advertised, sponsored, or promoted on outlets including the Disney Channel, Radio Disney, and Disney websites will have to conform to limits on areas like caloric, sodium, and sugar content.

"We've been looking at the Disney criteria they're using, and they're a little bit better than the criteria that the food industry already uses, but they're not great. So by no means will this limit children's exposure to junk food," says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

She points to the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a program in which some of the nation's largest food companies have come together to self-regulate the products advertised to children. Harris notes that the Disney guidelines differ little from the CFBAI guidelines already in place.

For example, Disney's new guidelines allow meals marketed to children to have no more than 600 calories—the same limit established by the CFBAI. Disney and CFBAI also both allow a six-ounce yogurt to have a maximum of 170 calories. Likewise, both allow 350 calories for a main dish or entree.

To be fair, cutting calories is still cutting calories; the company allows slightly lower counts of calories for several other foods, like cereals (130 per ounce versus CFBAI's 150 per serving for most children's cereals) and juice (140 for eight ounces versus CFBAI's 160 per serving), as well as "mini-meals" (400 versus CFBAI's 450 for "small meals").

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But one person who helped to establish those guidelines says that they have to reflect market realities while they promote healthful options."When we issue guidelines they have to reflect, No. 1, what's in the marketplace, and No. 2, what kids can be reasonably expected to eat," says Keith Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

While Harris and her colleagues may doubt the guidelines' effectiveness, Disney is touting in its announcement that it has some backing from the scientific community. "Disney is using 'magic'—fun and creativity—to encourage kids and families to make positive changes, and it is working," says James O. Hill, who worked with Disney in developing the guidelines and is also the executive director at the University of Colorado's Anschutz Health & Wellness Center.

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While the decision may not endear the company to some of its advertisers, the company likely perceives that the positive of parental approval outweighs any animosity from the food industry.

"How it would appeal to parents of young children had to have been the No. 1 reason why to move forward," says Carol Phillips, president of market research firm Brand Amplitude. "There's probably lots of reasons in the not-to-do-it column, but for their brand it's definitely a good move, I would say."

Harris agrees. "Disney probably has some risk of losing advertisers because of this, but I'm sure they will get a lot of good will from parents," she says.

It's easy to be cynical about Disney's decision, but then, it's understandable that companies think about their bottom lines, even if and when they also consider how to make the world a better place. Sometimes, values and profitability simply intersect.

"I think it was kind of a values-driven decision," says Phillips, noting that Disney is one of the world's most admired brands—No. 13, according to FORTUNE magazine. "I think a decision like this, though, is not a short-term play. I think this is probably something that was deeply considered based on their brand vision and what they want their brand to stand for."