Mini Mouse

Last week, The Walt Disney Co. told the world that it will start selling healthier meals at its theme parks and allow its characters to be licensed out only to support food with reduced fat and sugar content. No law made Disney do this, but as Mickey Mouse might have said himself, “That sure is swell!”

We are wary of government mandates that require legal businesses to protect consumers from their own bad habits. But we are very much in favor of companies that recognize their responsibilities as corporate citizens to do the right thing. To that extent, we are proud of Disney’s good example.

But Disney did not say it will quit airing commercials for products that aren’t very healthy for kids, at least not right now.

Nonetheless, public reaction was ecstatic. FCC Commissioner Deborah Tate called it “a great day for American families.” Margo Wootan, an executive with the usually combative Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, “Disney’s new practices put it in a much more family-friendly position than its competitors,” namely Nickelodeon.

Naysayers quickly got in gear. “The media conglomerate isn’t doing anything about the junk-food advertising that appears on its array of television stations, which include the ABC Network, ABC Family, Disney Channel or Toon Disney,” said Michele Simon, author of a book about how food companies are just about killing us.

But Disney didn’t act in a vacuum; nor do its new restrictions preclude ABC and Disney’s taking even bigger steps later. The ad industry’s self-regulatory body is reviewing its guidelines, and, a Disney spokesman indicates, the company may toughen up its advertising stance.

Certainly, attitudes about junk food are changing. Nickelodeon has been publicly flogged for promoting bad eating habits, so now SpongeBob SquarePants is hawking spinach (when, of course, spinach is not being recalled). Kellogg has altered the kinds of foods it will advertise to kids. McDonald’s has made its menu healthier.

Fat is a serious problem. According to the National Health and Nutrition Survey, 34% of the nation’s children—that’s 25 million kids—are overweight, and half of those overweight kids are actually obese. That’s scary. But we don’t think there ought to be a law that says kids can’t see commercials for candy bars unless there’s a law that says parents can’t buy them for their kids, or stores can’t sell them to kids.

Advertising may be a powerful motivator for little minds, but parents, schools and manufacturers should also be doing their jobs. Television gets blamed for just about everything and credit for just about nothing.

We’re sending Disney CEO Bob Iger a fruit basket.