Today, the Walt Disney Company announced a new set of standards for food products that can be advertised on its kid-centric radio channels, websites and TV stations (including Saturday morning cartoons on ABC) as part of its Magic of Healthy Living initiative. In addition, food and drink products which meet Disney standards for nutrition will be given the new Mickey Check. The criteria for the Mickey Check follows proposed health and nutrition standards recommendations from federal regulators about how food and beverages should be marketed to children, in an attempt to steer advertisers towards more ethical practices. For the most part, bodies like the Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration are powerless to enact meaningful legislation on the way companies can advertise their products, leaving it up to the marketers as to whether or not they want to use ethical or deceptive advertising practices.
This is part of why the Disney move is a big deal–it’s being done voluntarily. But even more important is Disney’s forthrightness that this is not about charity. In the New York Times article about the initiative, Disney chairman Robert A. Iger acknowledges the role of corporate citizenship, but is open about the company’s bottom line: “This is not altruistic. This is about smart business.”
So, yes–any skepticism you may have about Disney is well-placed. They are one of the largest media corporations in the world and they exist to make money, not to do the ‘right’ thing. But it just happens that in choosing to be more responsible about the way they engage their family and child audiences, they are acting wisely in terms of business strategy as well. Growing awareness of the causes around childhood obesity is helping to educate consumers about the importance of monitoring the role of media in the lives of their families, and Disney knows that when pushed too far, consumers can and will take their business elsewhere. No company ever went ‘green’ because they suddenly started worrying about polar bears and carbon emissions; they did it because growing numbers of consumers started to care, and demanded products which reflected their changing values. Disney is doing the same thing.
Look at nearly any thread of comments on the LAMPlatoon’s YouTube channel (like this one), and you’ll read from people defending misleading commercials, claiming that this is the only way for companies to sell products, and they need to make money. What Disney’s effort shows all of us is that this is not the only way. You can run a business, sell products and make billions in profits without misleading and insulting consumers, and that’s what we want. The true value of the Mickey Check for both Disney and the public is yet to be seen, but the step towards uniting ethical marketing with profitable business–and being transparent about it–is most certainly a move in the right direction. The real magic will be if other big media companies can see the same thing Disney sees.
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