What Disney's Junk Food Ad Ban Means for the Future of TV

Bob Iger with Michelle Obama

Bob Iger's plan comes as advertisers look beyond kids' shows to hawk burgers and candy.

This story first appeared in the June 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Mickey Mouse as a picture of good health? That's what Disney is banking on with an initiative announced June 5 that will ban ads for sugar- and fat-laden products during kids TV programs including those on Disney Junior and ABC's Saturday morning cartoons. Disney's "Magic of Healthy Living" guidelines -- announced by chairman and CEO Robert Iger and first lady Michelle Obama -- will dole out a "Mickey Check" seal of approval to foods that meet federal nutritional standards.

The move won't take effect until 2015, and analysts don't see the loss of advertising hurting the overall bottom line at a company that brings in $43 billion in annual revenue. Disney Channel makes $1 billion a year on affiliate fees but sells no advertising, Disney Junior will generate less than $20 million in ads in 2012, and Disney XD will sell about $127 million, according to SNL Kagan.

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"Disney gives up a small amount of advertising, gets good publicity and gains itself an excellent talking point when negotiating affiliate fees," says Steve Birenberg of Northlake Capital Management.

Still, the move signals a turning point in how television is used to market to American children, nearly a quarter of whom ages 6 to 11 are obese, according to a Centers for Disease Control survey. The Council of Better Business Bureaus' Children's Food and Beverage Initiative -- with corporate partners including McDonald's, Burger King, Kraft and Frito-Lay -- has announced self-imposed guidelines for ads targeting kids beginning in January 2014, well before Disney's plan goes into effect.

Beyond that, the food industry has been eschewing kids programming in favor of advertising on channels parents watch with their children, such as Discovery and Food Network. "The days of whimsical commercials on Saturday morning cartoons where Cap'n Crunch fights pirates are coming to an end," says Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research. "Now he'll be seen checking his weight and playing baseball." Cheetos is a perfect example, with ads that appeal to adults and often run during shows families watch together. "That's how food marketing has evolved," Wieser notes. "Disney is just catching up to reality. The marketers were already there."

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And Disney isn't alone. Nickelodeon has several health initiatives including an annual Worldwide Day of Play, which encourages physical activity by going dark for three hours. But the network, like others, accepts ads for sweetened drinks and other unhealthy snacks.

While advocacy groups are welcoming the Disney news, many say such efforts have had little impact on obesity. From 2003 to 2009, the percentage of ads for unhealthy food aimed at kids decreased from 94 percent to 86 percent, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, but that's still a hefty majority. "The industry self-regulatory program's marketing standards limit ads for the worst junk foods," the CSPI said in a statement June 5. "But Popsicles, imitation fruit snacks and sugary cereals such as Cocoa Puffs are considered healthy enough to market to kids."

An advocacy group is pressuring PBS to abandon a deal with fast-food chain Chick-fil-A and the children's program Martha Speaks, which distributed 50 million Chick-fil-A Kid's Meals in Martha Speaks-branded bags in 2011. And Disney's initiative comes as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trying to ban sales of sugary drinks in sizes larger than 16 oz. The soft drink industry -- backed by movie theater operators -- took out an ad in The New York Times on June 4 depicting Bloomberg in Mrs. Doubtfire regalia and chiding him for his "strange obsession" with the public's dietary habits.