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Disney Nixes Junk-Food Ads Aimed at Kids. Can Good Health Be Good Business?

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Children’s TV programming and junk food have been tied since the beginnings of the medium, as in the above video of an early Mickey Mouse Club, sponsored by “your friendly neighbor who bottles Coca-Cola.” Now, however, the Disney corporation plans to kick ads for many sugary and fatty foods off its programming (including ABC Saturday morning shows) aimed at children. The company, reports the New York Times, will announce the ban, which will take until 2015 to implement, with Michelle Obama today.

The move will probably be folded into the larger hot-button debate right now over how institutions should act to promote public health and fight obesity—as with New York City’s proposed ban on giant sodas in restaurants—though a business voluntarily limiting its ads seems a less controversial proposal than a government restricting sales. (Nonetheless, the very involvement of an Obama leads me to assume someone is going to politicize this.)

But what interests me about Disney’s move is not just the ad ban, but an associated project that could be a model for making health initiatives into good business: the company is introducing the Mickey Check, a Disney-branded seal of approval to be featured on products that meet its standards.

I’m no dietitian, and I don’t claim to judge whether Mickey Check’s nutritional guidelines are as good as they should be. I can see the argument that an effort like this may simply add to the welter of logos on food packaging, many of them conceived self-servingly by manufacturers, that may only confuse shoppers. And I would guess Disney will still sell plenty of non-Check-worthy foods at its own theme parks.

But the fact that Disney, primarily an entertainment and not a food company, sees a business and branding opportunity in eschewing junk-food ads—by trying to establish itself as an arbiter of healthier foods—at least has the potential to change the conversation for businesses that rely on advertising. Usually, rejecting ads for anything—tobacco, liquor, candy—is framed as the business giving something up, for altruistic or p.r. reasons. Here, Disney is suggesting that it can instead be a way of gaining something—in this case, a new and intimate relationship with consumers.

I’ve written before on this blog about advertising in programs for kids. Like a lot of parents today, between DVRs and DVDs my kids see as few TV ads as possible, and anecdotally, I hear far fewer parents complain about the content of their kids’ TV shows than the content of the commercials they see in them. (Or during sporting events, in movie theaters, on planes…) On the one hand, I can see parents being grateful for a lack of empty calories in Disney Channel ad breaks. But taking away ads is only part of the equation; another part, which Disney seems to working at, is offering parents some guidance in making food choices in the grocery aisles.

You could argue that you don’t want to rely on Disney for nutrition advice, and that’s fine. You could say that a better way to eat well is to avoid the processed, boxed foods altogether and buy fresh ingredients, and I wouldn’t argue. But it still seems significant that such a big company has decided that encouraging better eating is not a charitable act but a new business opportunity. I only hope, however, that this doesn’t mean the end of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Hot Dog Song:

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