Disney tackles childhood obesity

Food industry pledges to stop targeting kids

Saying it’s good for business, the Mouse House touted improved measures it is taking to reduce junk food consumption by children, and nearly a dozen food industry giants pledged to either stop targeting kids with junk food ads or start marketing healthier foods.

Announcements came at a forum on Wednesday sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission and the Dept. of Health and Human Services, both of which have sounded an alarm in recent years about the link between increasing rates of childhood obesity and junk food ads aired during kids’ TV programming, which reaps an estimated $900 million in annual ad revenue.

Jennifer Shein Anopolsky, V.P. of corporate brand management for Disney, said the company is committed to following through on measures initiated last year involving Mickey’s theme parks, movie studios and product licensing.

For instance, Anopolsky said that kids’ meals in parks will no longer automatically come with french fries and a soda; instead, fresh fruit or veggies will be offered with either low-fat milk, fruit juice or water. Disney plans to eliminate trans fats from its menus by the end of the year.

The Disney Channel will also reject as sponsors any kinds of food not meeting specific health guidelines, and it will continue to incorporate health-conscious themes and messages into its childrens programming.

Disney will also only license its image to supermarket foods that meet health-conscious guidelines, Anopolsky said.

“This is good for business in the long term because this is what parents want, and when you deliver what parents want, it’s successful for the company,” Anopolsky said.

An exec producer of a new kids’ show – “Finky’s Kitchen,” a sitcom about kids hanging out after school in a high-tech restaurant – echoed Anopolsky, saying parents are extremely concerned about their children’s eating habits. The pilot for “Finky’s Kitchen,” which focuses on children’s health, was recently completed, and the show is not yet affiliated with any broadcaster or network.

Jennifer Kotler, a researcher at the Dept. of Education who also handles outreach for the Sesame Workshop, noted that pairing characters in kids’ shows with particular kinds of food influences children’s food choices. Kotler recalled a mother who once told her that her child never liked green beans until seeing Elmo eat them.

“Disney should be commended for taking the lead in the television industry, along with Sesame Workshop,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). “But the rest of the television industry has got to take similar action.”

Cadbury Adams, Campbell Soup Co., Coca-Cola Co., General Mills, Hershey Co., Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods Inc., Mars Inc., McDonald’s USA, PepsiCo and Unilever pledged “to focus essentially all of their advertising primarily directed to children under 12 on products meeting better-for-you standards or refrain from advertising to that age group,” according to a statement released through the Better Business Bureau.

“Collectively these pledges will improve the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 and reduce the number of food advertisements run by participating companies,” said Elaine D. Kolish, a BBB official.

How much the reduction of ads will affect TV’s bottom line is unclear, given that the pledges only involve children’s programming. Shows that are labeled as “family fare,” which draw much larger auds than kids’ shows, will not be affected.

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