Disney recently announced new, stricter standards for food and beverage products advertised on its youth-centered TV channels, radio stations, and websites. Disney revealed its new initiatives in a Washington D.C. press conference alongside First Lady Michelle Obama, who’s been campaigning for healthier eating habits since her move to the White House.
The announcement builds on other healthy-eating initiatives by the Mouse House, including a 2006 effort to curtail its character licensing on products high in sugar, salt or fat, ending the partnership with McDonalds that pulled Toy Story characters from Happy Meals. Disney’s latest nutrition standards mean that companies wishing to advertise on certain Disney-owned outlets will have to adhere to stricter limits on calories, sugars, and saturated fat in their products. Popular products like Lunchables and CapriSun wouldn’t make the cut for commercial time under the new criteria. Michelle Obama praised Disney’s move as significant change in the children’s media business, calling it a “game-changer” for childhood obesity in the U.S.: “…for years people told us that no matter what we did to get our kids to eat well and exercise, we would never solve our childhood obesity crisis until companies changed the way that they sell food to our children. We all know the conventional wisdom about that… today, Disney has turned that conventional wisdom on its head.”
Indeed, the move by Disney can be read as significant to children’s media culture. The food and beverage industry has long been the leading advertiser in kids’ TV, dating back to the earliest days of the medium–even before “children’s television” became synonymous with Saturday morning cartoons. Although the new criteria doesn’t go into effect until 2015 (because of existing agreements and contracts, per Disney), any pledge to turn away advertiser’s money in our commercial system is notable, especially from a the particular industry that’s historically been the bread-and-butter of kids’ television.
Disney, however, is in a particularly privileged position to launch such a program because of its diversified yet highly integrated business models. Unlike Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, or The Hub, Disney’s flagship kids channel isn’t ad-supported in the traditional sense (a holdover from its early days as a premium cable channel, where pricey subscription fees form most of the channel’s revenue). Ad-research firm Kanter Media estimated that spending for food and beverage products on Disney-owned children’s programming (on cable and ABC) totaled $7.2 million in 2011. But that figure is less than one-tenth of one percent of Disney’s total annual advertising sales ($7.6 billion across its networks in 2011); the figure becomes even less significant when you consider that all those ad sales make up less than half of the total $18.7 billion in revenue generated by Disney-owned Media Networks in 2011. Annual income from affiliate and subscriber fees ($8.8 billion) and sales/distribution of programming around the world ($2.3 billion) form the bulk of Disney Media Networks’ revenue, according to its 2011 annual report (p. 30). Still, though, this move by Disney may have larger, reverberating effects in the kids’ TV biz as a whole – the publicity Disney’s receiving for “banning junk food advertising” may force other channels/networks that are more ad-dependent to adopt similar restrictions on products advertised in kids’ media culture.
But what’s getting less attention is perhaps the most interesting part of Disney’s announcement: the launch of the new “Mickey Check” logo. Products that meet Disney’s new health criteria are not only eligible to air their advertising on Disney’s outlets, but are also eligible to bear the “Mickey Check” logo on their consumer packaging. According to the White House press release, by the end of 2012, “the Mickey Check will appear on licensed foods products, on qualified recipes on Disney.com and Family.com, and on menus and select products at Disney’s Parks and Resorts.”
By appearing to limit food ads to kids with it’s new criteria, the Mouse House is on one hand “taking a stand” and “turning the conventional wisdom of selling food to our children on its head,” to use Michelle Obama’s words. On the other hand, putting a Mickey logo on food products sold via Disney outlets upholds some of the oldest conventions of marketing to kids. Using familiar characters or logos from kids’ favorite media to sell consumer goods is the oldest trick in the book; in fact, a form of this tactic (known as host-selling) was at one time banned by the FCC on television aimed at children. The green check mark and/or the phrase “good for you–and fun too!” hardly do anything to diminish the dominance of the familiar Mickey shape and Disney-lettered logo in the top left; one hardly has to stretch the imagination to see a child in a grocery cart excitedly ask their parents for “Mickey snacks,” regardless of the product. After all, by the age of two most children become quite skilled at brand recognition and logo identification, and struggle to understand the selling intent of commercials and branded merchandise well into their middle-school years (see Kunkel, 1987; Valkenburg & Cantor, 2001).
The potential loss of advertising sales by the “banned” products seems far less risky (and admirable) when you consider the revenue possibilities of licensing the “Mickey Check” to products that do meet their criteria (especially if the Mickey Check becomes an add-on used to up-sell marketers on advertising time with Disney). At best, the new Mickey Check licensing is an obvious attempt to monetize the pseudo-goodwill of this announcement and extend the Disney brand; at worst, it’s a conscious continuation of marketing practices that exploit children’s cognitive development process of becoming educated consumers. Perhaps Robert Iger’s comments to The New York Times sum it up best: “companies in a position to help with solutions to childhood obesity should do just that,” but, he added, “this is not altruistic. This is about smart business.”