June 5, 2012 -- The Walt Disney Co. will drop advertisers from its children's programming that do not comply with tighter nutrition guidelines instituted by the media and entertainment giant, the company said today.
First lady Michelle Obama appeared with Disney CEO Bob Iger to endorse the move, which was coupled with health-conscious revisions to menus at Disney's theme parks and resorts.
Obama called the decision a "game changer" for private industry.
"It's huge," she said at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., adding, "Just a few years ago if you had told me or any other mom or dad in America that our kids wouldn't see a single ad for junk food while they watched their favorite cartoons on a major TV network, we wouldn't have believed you."
The first lady said Disney had "turned that conventional wisdom on its head," noting it was the first major media corporation to adopt such a policy. Disney is the parent company of ABC News.
The new guidelines are an expansion of initiatives started by the company in 2006, using voluntary recommendations from the federal government. Iger said the continuing epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States spurred his company to shore up its practices.
"We believe everyone has a role to play in helping the generation of at-risk kids make healthier choices and we're determined to be part of the solution," he said. "If everyone does their small part, together we can create huge change without having the government step in to directly regulate or legislate our efforts."
Roughly one-third of Americans are considered overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. About 17 percent of children are obese, a figure that has almost tripled since 1980. Michelle Obama said children see an estimated $1.6 billion in food and beverage advertising, many for products with high calories. She said she'd seen its effects firsthand with her own daughters.
"The minute you walk down the [grocery] aisle, the kids are singing some jingle, or they're pulling on your leg begging you, pleading you for whatever they saw on TV," she said. "And, as a mom, I know how that makes it even harder for us to keep our kids healthy."
In an interview after his remarks, Iger conceded that his company could take a revenue hit as a result of today's announcement.
"When I think about Disney's bottom line, and we think about managing the company, we're thinking about the long term and not any one quarter or any one year," he said.
Iger would later add, "The more we behave as better citizens of the world, the more they will admire our company and like our products. This is good for the Disney brand and good for our bottom line on a long-term basis, even if it pinches us a bit in the short term."
Advertisers in Disney's television, radio and online properties will have until 2015 to comply with the new guidelines.
Disney says it will also revoke its license from private food distributors that do not comply with the new guidelines. For example: breakfast cereals featuring Disney characters on the box. Meanwhile, fast-food options at theme parks and resorts will be replaced with alternatives such as apples or vegetables.
Disney chefs provided examples of the cuisine today that will a place in the parks and resorts, including as smoothies and quinoa. Even the big boss himself -- Mickey Mouse -- took part. Donning a huge white chef's hat, the man-sized rodent advertised a Swiss breakfast cereal of oats and yogurt.
But when asked whether treats such as Mickey Mouse ice cream would remain available for purchase, Mr. Mouse gave a silent but emphatic thumbs up.
Iger was quick to note that ice cream, fries and what he called "celebratory foods" would remain on the menu, but would be a distinct minority and no longer the default choice.
Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the move will force food distributors to comply for both ethical and profit reasons.
"Companies will want to be associated with Disney characters," she said. "They are going to want to place their ads on Disney channels, and so they are going to need to reformulate their products."
Praising the decision, Wootan said entertainment companies need to "take some responsibility" as well because they are ultimately airing the ads.
Michelle Obama has made promotion of nutrition and exercise a major theme of her tenure as first lady, particularly concerning children. The administration says her "Let's Move" campaign has led 1,500 U.S. schools to adopt healthier menus and fitness programs. Several large food distributors have also partnered with the initiative to cut back on calories in their products or expand their stores into neighborhoods without ready access to healthy foods.
Nor is this her first partnership with Disney. In February, the first lady visited ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World in Florida to host athletic and dance games for children at the theme park, alongside professional athletes and Disney stars.