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First lady hails Disney’s junk-food ad pledge

Mouse sets nutritional standards for Disney nets

The Walt Disney Co.’s effort to restrict junk food advertising on kids’ TV is being hailed as a breakthrough in government efforts to curb obesity, and there is some expectation that other media companies will do the same.

Disney CEO Robert Iger and First Lady Michelle Obama appeared at the Newseum in Washington on Tuesday to formally announce Disney’s plans, which will apply to advertising and promotion on ABC stations’ Saturday-morning programming, the Disney Channel, Disney Jr., Disney XD, Radio Disney and online destinations. The sponsors will be held to a set of nutritional standards that emphasize fruits and vegetables and less sodium, sugar and saturated fat.

Those guidelines seemingly would restrict a host of sugary drinks and snacks aimed at kids. The new standards, however, will not be completely phased in until 2015, so Disney can honor existing advertising agreements.

The first lady, who has made the epidemic of obesity a centerpiece of her causes, called the new initiative “truly a gamechanger for the health of our children.”

“We have heard all the cynics who say we can’t change the market or that concerned parents are no match for corporate bottom lines or that companies will bever change their business model for the good of our kids,” she said. “But truly today Disney has turned that conventional wisdom on its head.”

Additional government efforts to restrict advertising, even to children, are likely to stall out in the polarized political environment, a fact that was perhaps underscored by the furor that greeted New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement last week on the sale of oversized sugary drinks.

Disney is following nutritional guidelines proposed by government regulators, but media companies have been wary and resistant of the government taking wider reaching steps, even when under the unbrella of promoting self-regulation. In 2009, Congress directed a group of agencies, led by the Federal Trade Commision, to set voluntary principles for food marketing to children, but the initial proposals were met with opposition from studios.

In July, the MPAA issued a 10-page report opposing the guidelines, calling them too far reaching and questioning whether they would put pressure on media companies to accept them or risk their relationships with members of Congress and government agencies. A proposal to label movies as “child-directed” drew particular opposition from the MPAA, seeking to protect its self-regulating ratings system. “For example, if the proposed principles were in place when the Academy Award-winning film ‘E.T.’ was made, the iconic scene where E.T. slowly opens a clenched fist filled with Reese’s Pieces likely would have been altered,” the MPAA said in its filing.

Efforts to come up with a final set of guidelines have slowed as Congress in December called for an analysis of the costs and benefits of the proposals.

Nevertheless, FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz signaled that Disney’s announcement would prove to be another way forward. “We hope other media companies will follow Disney’s example,” he said.

A Nickelodeon source said that their marketing partners have signed on to the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, an effort by companies like Kraft Foods, General Mills and Coca Cola to establish uniform nutrition standards that go into effect at the end of 2013. A Cartoon Network spokesman said that they developed nutrition guidelines in 2007 restricting how their characters can appear on packaged goods.

In 2006, Disney announced an initiative to boost healthy foods at theme parks and to eliminate the use of toys from movies in its kids meals. Its latest announcement also includes the placement of “Mickey Checks” logos on food products company-branded food products to show that they meet nutritional guidelines.