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Banning Junk Food Ads On Disney Media Outlets: A “Game-Changer”, or a Mickey Mouse Measure?

Yesterday, with the help of first lady Michelle Obama, the Walt Disney Company announced that from 2015, it will no longer allow the advertisement of junk food on its media outlets ( This announcement has been lauded by those who are alarmed by the colossal statistics regarding childhood obesity in the USA. Mrs. Obama herself hailed the initiative as a “game changer”.

The USA (but not only the USA) is facing an epidemic of childhood obesity. 17% of all children and adolescents in the USA are clinically obese, triple the rate of what it was one generation ago ( This percentage might even be higher according to a recent study ( Given the numerous health problems associated with obesity, this is clearly a cause for grave concern.

It certainly seems plausible that the preponderance of fast food advertisements might have some effect on childhood obesity; at least this was the conclusion of the Institute of Medicine’s 2004 research into the matter( In lacking certain critical competencies, children are more vulnerable to the various ways in which advertisers can covertly influence preferences. With this in mind, there is much to admire about the initiative. By banning junk food adverts on media outlets which are primarily aimed at children, it seems that the initiative will remove an important contributing factor to the childhood obesity epidemic.

But, will it prove to be a ‘game changer’ as Mrs. Obama claims? I don’t believe that it will for three reasons. The first is that advertisements are far from being the only causal influence on children’s preferences for junk food.  Although advertisements are undoubtedly an important influence, there are surely others which have greater impact. Most obviously, it seems that the child’s parents can exert great influence over the child’s preferences. We might also point out that the wide availability of junk food can help serve to normalize its consumption.

Second, even if the initiative is successful in significantly reducing children’s preferences for junk food, this is only half the battle won with regards to the child’s diet. If we really want to be ‘game changing’ about reducing childhood obesity, then we must aim, not only to reduce the child’s preference for junk food, but also to actively encourage them to eat in accordance with a balanced diet. A big part of this is education, on both the child’s part and the parent’s. Most obviously, if parents are to be encouraged to feed their children healthily, they must first know what constitutes a balanced diet. Yet, further than this, if we are to reduce obesity, then it seems that we must also make the prospect of a balanced diet appealing to both the child and the parents responsible for feeding them. As well as raising awareness about the health benefits of a balanced diet, the appeal of feeding children healthily could be enhanced by subsidizing healthy foods.

However, the biggest worry with regards to the reaction that this initiative has received is that the fact that it is being regarded as ‘game changing’ is really a reflection of an arguably far more important cause of the childhood obesity epidemic. Presumably, those who regard the initiative as ‘game changing’ do so because they regard media advertisements as exerting a great deal of influence over children. Yet it seems that these junk food advertisements will only exert the degree of influence that critics say they do if children are spending a large amount of time watching Disney’s media outlets.  To my mind then, the claim that banning junk food adverts on Disney’s media outlets will have a game changing effect on childhood obesity just speaks to the fact that children who live in societies which are in the grips of the obesity epidemic live an extraordinarily sedentary lifestyle. Although tackling childhood obesity will involve improving children’s diets, we will only  be able to fullytackle this problem if we aim to change the child’s overall lifestyle. The moral question which this of course raises is the extent to which the state may legitimately play a role in changing children’s lifestyle, if parents have influenced their children to adopt a lifestyle which is likely to prove harmful.

Disney’s initiative itself is, I believe, a step in the right direction.  Advertisements undoubtedly play a role in the formation of children’s preferences for junk food. However, removing these advertisements alone will not be game changing. Although children sitting down and watching adverts for healthy foods is perhaps better than them sitting down and watching adverts for junk food, it is their sitting down in the first place which is itself part of the problem. If we really want to be game changing about childhood obesity, we must affect lifestyle, and not merely food preferences. The question is whether the state may legitimately encroach on this domain if parents are influencing their child to adopt a lifestyle which will lead to obesity.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. >Although advertisements are undoubtedly an important influence, there are surely others which have greater impact.

    An intriguing side effect of the ban will be that it’ll give us a chance to measure the relative importance of advertisements.

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