The Walt Disney Co. said Tuesday that it will become the first major media company in the U.S. to ban such ads for its TV channels, radio stations and websites intended for children. The guidelines won't go into effect until 2015 because of existing advertising agreements.
First Lady Michelle Obama, who has pushed for healthy eating, called the announcement a "game changer" during an event announcing Disney's decision.
"Just a few years ago, if you had told me or any other mom or dad in America that our kids wouldn't see a single ad for junk food while they watched their favorite cartoons on a major TV network, we wouldn't have believed you," Obama said.
Disney's announcement could pressure other media companies to follow suit at a time when concerns over obesity rates are growing.
Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on large sugary drinks in the city's restaurants, movie theaters and stadiums. City officials say they believe it will push governments around the US to adopt similar rules.
Disney says its guidelines are aligned with federal standards to promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables and reduce the intake of sodium, sugar and saturated fat.
The kids' meals offered by traditional fast-food chains may not meet the new advertising guidelines, even if the meals come with healthy side orders, says Leslie Goodman, Disney's senior vice president of corporate citizenship. That's because Disney will be assessing the restaurant's broader offerings in deciding whether to approve ads.
The company will have to show it offers a broader menu of healthier options, she said. For example, a complete meal under Disney's guidelines could have no more than 600 calories. A side dish could have no more than 200 calories.
Disney CEO Bob Iger said there might be a short-term reduction in advertising revenue, but he hopes companies will eventually create products that meet the standards.
Aviva Must, chairwoman of the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts School of Medicine, said Disney could succeed where government has made little progress.
"There seems to be limited taste for government regulation," said Must, who has studied childhood obesity for decades. "So I think a large company like Disney taking a stand and putting in a policy with teeth is a good step."
Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she hopes Disney's decision triggers similar changes with other companies.
"Disney's announcement really puts a lot of pressure on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and other media to do the same," she said.
A spokesman for Nickelodeon declined to comment.
It isn't the first time a major company has pledged to improve food marketing to children.
In 2006, the Better Business Bureau and major food companies launched the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which is intended to encourage healthier food choices.