Los Angeles - As a global media conglomerate that owes its entire existence to square-eyed children who spend their waking hours glued to a television set, the Walt Disney Company makes an unlikely advocate for the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
That is exactly where the organisation known in Hollywood as the “Mouse House” now finds itself, however, after announcing a pioneering ban on the promotion of junk food across its array of kids' TV shows, internet sites and radio programmes.
This week, executives from Disney held a news conference in Washington with the First Lady, Michelle Obama, to outline the company’s plans to become the first major US broadcaster to eliminate from its airwaves advertisements for unhealthy meals, drinks and snacks aimed at children under the age of 12.
The rules stipulate that food products that are advertised on channels such as Disney XD or that sponsor shows on The Disney Channel must comply with nutritional guidelines that place limits on salt, sugar and fat levels, together with overall calories. They will be phased in across the US over the next three years, to comply with existing commercial contracts, and then “gradually rolled out” in other territories, including the UK, according to a spokesman. The firm is also to reduce by 25 percent the amount of salt in children's meals served at its theme parks, carry a series of “public service” adverts that promote exercise and healthy food, and introduce a range of Disney-themed fruit and vegetable products to be sold in supermarkets.
Disney's move comes days after New York's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, announced a ban on large servings of soft drinks in the city. Healthy-eating campaigners hope that, together, the shifts indicate that America is finally coming to grips with what they call its “obesity epidemic” - a third of the nation's children are overweight and around 17 percent are clinically obese.
Ms Obama, who has devoted much of her time as First Lady to campaigning for healthier eating, praised Disney for “doing what no major media company has ever done before in the US”. She called its policy a “game-changer” and hopes it will be mirrored by rival media organisations such as Nickelodeon and Discovery Kids.
In recent months, Ms Obama's efforts to promote her signature cause, which has extended to creating a vegetable garden at the White House, have been noisily ridiculed by a small number of mostly right-wing critics. They believe that encouraging children to eat healthily and take more exercise represents an incursion by the Nanny State into the private lives of families.
But Disney's chairman, Robert Iger, told The New York Times that he believes the potential long-term benefits of the move outweigh whatever short-term commercial loss his firm might suffer by turning away advertisers or angering the First Lady's political opponents.
“Companies in a position to help with solutions to childhood obesity should do just that,” he said. “This is not altruistic. This is about smart business.” -