Disney's PR Strategy Unhealthy for 'Little Consumers'

The announcement this week by Disney that the company is placing nutrition guidelines on licensed food products aimed at children (along with kid-friendly meals at theme parks) is just the latest effort by Corporate America to save its tarnished image.

Reporters are guilty of jumping every time a company makes an announcement such as Disney's, grossly exaggerating the positive health impact. Examples of stories this week include: "Disney Gets Serious on Nutrition" (Boston Globe), "Disney Cleans Plate of Junk Food" (Los Angeles Times), and the most irresponsible, "Disney Bans All Junk Food" (Daily Mail). These misleading headlines serve corporations very well because they are all most people will remember. So now parents think that Disney no longer markets junk food to kids. Only one problem: It's not true.

With rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, America is currently embroiled in a national debate over who is to blame for the public health crisis. Increasingly, it's not just the fat and sugar peddlers like McDonald's and Coca-Cola that are taking the heat. The major entertainment conglomerates are also finding themselves on the receiving end of public outcry. And rightly so, with cartoon "spokescharacters," toy give-aways, and other cross-promotional strategies, kids today are reduced to lucrative branding opportunities.

Why shouldn't we be impressed with Disney's press release? First of all, the company admits to a ridiculously long phase-in period. Corporations like to make announcements far ahead of when they plan to actually implement changes. Disney's timeline for getting the junk food out ranges from two to four years, partly because they are locked into preexisting licensing agreements. Surely a company with such huge bargaining power could find smart enough lawyers to renegotiate. Then again, maybe breaking current contracts would interfere with quarterly earnings. If Disney really cared about kids' health, why not either stop marketing the junk food now or simply wait until the changes are actually implemented to announce them?

Next, the Disney corporation is more than just movies and theme parks -- it's much more. The media conglomerate isn't doing anything about the junk food advertising that appears on its array of television stations, which include ABC Network, ABC Family, Disney Channel, and Toon Disney. Also, not a word was mentioned about the increasing trend of product placement in movies and television, an advertising technique that children are especially vulnerable to because of its stealth nature. (Product placement is actually illegal on children's television, but not in movies or "mixed audience" shows that also target adults.) Another technique the Disney policy is silent on is "advergaming" where kids are targeted with ads through online video games. At the home page of Disney's "Kid's Island" for example is a prominent ad for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, which links to a full 30-second television commercial with Tony the Tiger hawking the sugary cereal.

Most importantly, Disney's announcement amounts to little more than an excuse to keep its brand in front of kids. By setting nutrition guidelines -- as opposed to stopping the promotion of cartoon-branded food altogether, as many child advocates are calling for -- Disney has cleverly given itself an entirely new marketing opportunity. According to the company 's press release, "Disney Consumer Products has already begun to offer many licensed products which comply with the guidelines. They include breakfast items such as instant oatmeal featuring characters like The Incredibles and Kim Possible, and Disney Garden fresh produce such as kid-sized apples and bananas." I've never heard of "kid-sized" fruit. Do we really need to be branding fresh produce now?

Some advocates are calling the Disney move a good first step. But who exactly is holding the company accountable to this so-called policy? Who will make sure that Disney follows through on implementation? The name of the game for food and media corporations is to stave off legally enforceable (and potentially costly) government regulations, not to mention the threat of litigation. What the food and media companies fear even more than bad PR is government meddling and lawsuits. Instead, industry touts "self-regulation" as the answer to childhood obesity, a proven failed system of corporate oversight that merely maintains the status quo of high profit margins at the expense of children's health.

And what happens when Disney starts losing money and shareholders demand putting profits ahead of health? Legally the company will have no choice but to go back to business as usual to remain competitive. As we've learned from other corporate promises -- such as McDonald's reneged 2002 pledge to stop using trans fat -- once profits dip in the next quarter, no more caring about health. That's why we really need the federal government to step in and protect children's health with enforceable regulations to curb the onslaught of junk food marketing. Until companies are legally forced to change, they won't.

While Disney is telling us its motivation is children's health, the company's true goal is to get parents to keep buying its products and visiting its theme parks, and most importantly, to keep the Disney brand in front of kids' eyes. So now cartoon characters will market allegedly healthier foods to kids. But children don't need the Incredibles to tell them when and what to eat. Kids, like adults, get hungry all by themselves. That's how nature designed us. If companies like Disney would simply get out of the way, parents would have a much easier job.

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