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Editorial: Who's the Leader of the Club?

Disney last week announced new nutritional guidelines for food ads it is willing to run on its kidtargeted networks and Saturday morning shows. It is just the latest in a series of moves by food marketers, advertisers and media industries to address the problem of childhood and adult obesity, but the strongest statement yet from a program distributor that could lose some ad dollars as a result.

Those efforts include, most prominently, the Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, with food marketers who have voluntarily agreed to limit advertising of some foods and make healthier versions of others.

Yes, it is absolutely done in an effort to avoid stricter government regulation of their businesses, but it is also the right thing to do. We face the very real prospect of a generation of kids less healthy and with shorter lifespans than their parents, and billions in attendant additional healthcare costs somebody will have to pay with shrinking dollars. And let’s also drop the “Big Bad Media” vs. “Caring Public Interest Group” labels and admit that both sides are also parents and grandparents and future parents who know a potential public health crisis when they see one. (Anybody for more, not less, P.E. in schools, by the way?)

Disney was an early adopter, deciding back in 2006 to limit the use of branded characters in food marketing to kids, and teaming with Michelle Obama in 2010 on her Let’s Move campaign with its own Magic of Healthy Living Campaign. Since the government has been pushing media companies to join with food marketers to put limits on ads, we would have preferred Disney not make the announcement in concert with the First Lady. Disney should be doing this on its own dime, not in partnership with any administration or regulatory agency. The spur to industry action should not be perceived to be, and in fact should not be, government pressure, but good corporate citizenship driven by media execs with a powerful bully pulpit of their own and a desire for healthy, happy children.

That’s not to say public-private partnerships aren’t perfectly good models; the problem is that with the government asserting content control over media companies, there is always the nagging suspicion that the government’s thumb is on the scale, and the point, especially here, is to lighten that scale.

Elsewhere on the kids front, we think Facebook was catching a bit too much heat for its effort to allow kids under 12 to access the site. Kids under 12 already access the site, and by the millions, by most accounts. Facebook is trying to find a way to make that “legal,” as it were, by requiring parents of those kids to sign off on their participation. Authentication is going to be the way of the world, and the more effort put into making that online access more secure should be encouraged.

Facebook has brought on some of its own trouble by making privacy promises it did not keep, but it is under the watchful eye of a third-party auditor in that regard.

Parents, not the media, are ultimately responsible for their children, but it takes an electronic village these days, and media companies must step up. Thankfully, they are.