Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Disney's Nutrition Study Scandal (2016)


Mickey Mouse themed waffles served at Disney World
The Walt Disney Company has been a multi-media empire since its founding in 1923, and generates over $36 million in revenue a day. According to the Walt Disney Company website, their mission statement is "to be one of the world's leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. Using our portfolio of brands to differentiate our content, services and consumer products, we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related products in the world." Their business portfolio consists of media networks such as ABC, Freeform, and ESPN, while their parks, experiences, and consumer products consist of Disneyland Resort, Walt Disney World, Disney Cruise Line, and the Disney store, along with many other amusement park locations around the globe. 

On April 8, 2016, an article was published with information that the company had pressured an academic journal to withdraw a study children’s meal nutrition. According to the article, Disney was not worried about the contents of the study, but rather feared being associated with one of the study’s main authors, James Hill. Dr. Hill, a professor at the University Of Colorado School Of Medicine, had his last work, a project on sugary drinks and obesity funded by Coca Cola, opposed by fellow scientists in his field who felt that the results were tampered with.  This study had some bias in Coca Cola’s favor as Hill and his team determined that an increase of exercise could counteract eating and drinking sugary and fattening food.

STAT obtained emails between Disney and the study’s authors asking them to withdraw the meal study, regardless of an editor’s warnings of negative PR. Although no information has been revealed about Disney’s involvement with the study, if any at all, but this study shows how corporate sponsors and researchers interact with one another. When a Disney spokesman spoke on the issue, he wanted to reiterate that the questioning wasn’t about the study’s result, but rather Hill’s participation in the study.

Disney has their nutrition guidelines posted on their website now in 2018, which states that "Disney champions the happiness and well-being of kids, parents, and families, and will support healthy lifestyles for all ages by offering and portraying a balance of nutritious options." These guidelines later say that "virtually all of our food or beverage related promotions and sponsorships meet these Guideline. The few exceptions are generally a result of pre-existing contractual obligations." Although they state that they regularly re-evaluate their guidelines for nutrition, it is clear that other things have been done to meet these guidelines, and that they were not living up to the company's mission statement when they suppressed the study from being released.


Dr. James O. Hill: Professor of Pediatrics & Medicine,
Director Center for Human Nutrition, Director of the
Colorado Clinical Nutrition Research Unit
Many different stakeholders are effected by the ethical dilemma extend far beyond the stockholders. Shareholders of Disney, however, trust the company to be truthful on its studies, including knowing the procedures about how to fund them. Regardless of the true implications, a company funded study should not be pressured into not releasing the results as it is unethical and can cause stakeholders to loose trust in the company. The customers who go to Disney’s amusement parks are also affected by these decisions. Many common diseases can be managed or avoided altogether, including (but not limited to) certain cancers, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Most people have at least a fundamental understanding of nutrition, and people who are more likely to get these types of diseases pay attention to every detail about food they are eating. Especially while at a new location that serves food, people want to see the nutritional facts of the food they are are eating, and  they have a right to know so they can stay healthy. When nutrition studies are under pressure to be held from publication, it causes these customers to not trust companies.


An Individualist would think this case is ethical. According to Friedman’s individualism theory the only goal of business is to profit, so the obligation that the business person has is to maximize profit for the owner and/or stockholders. By dissociating itself from Hill and his team, Disney was doing the profitable thing by trying to avoid itself from someone who was part of an ethical controversy with another company. Disney spent  $2 billion dollars on advertising in 2016, and when compared to the previous four years, is substantially higher. This increase in spending can be associated with this ethical dilemma and the need to keep people coming to their parks. This move by Disney paid off as they were able to generate $55.63 billion in global revenue in 2016, which can be attributed to both the increased spending in advertising and the disassociation of Hill.

This was also the ethical choice based on the reputation of the company. In 2016, Forbes named Disney the second most reputable company in the world, which is higher than their 2015 ranking at sixth. This shows that the Walt Disney company has a high reputation around the world, specifically between the sales of motion pictures and the attraction to the amusement parks. With the disassociation of Hill, and the company's ability to advertise more, this can still be considered ethical. Based on Hill's reputation with his Coca Cola scandal, Disney had no choice but to disassociate itself from the study. By asking the publisher into not releasing the study, Disney was saving money and its reputation, all while staying within the law.


Mickey Mouse themed oranges 
According to a Kantianist, this case is unethical because of it violates the basic principles that Kantianism is based on. These four principles are act rationally, allow and help people to make rational decisions, respect people, their autonomy, and their individual needs and differences, and be motivated by good will. Because Disney attempted to withhold information, both the results of the study and the association with those who conducted the study, they are not allowing people to make rational decisions, nor acting rationally as a company. To act ethically in this situation, it would have been better to release the study, but also announce the association with Hill and his team and that the company chose poorly in their decision to work with them. In this hypothetical situation, people would be able to make a decision on the study themselves and Disney would have been motivated by good will to stay true to publishing the results of the study and help people make the decisions they want.

With Kantian ethics in mind, it is important to note the formula of humanity. According to Kant, the formula of humanity refers to "act[ing] in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means." In this sense, 'end' refers to something valuable in itself, for it's own sake, while 'means' refers to something that is valuable as a way to get something else. Disney compromised the study about nutrition by both hiring Hill in the first place, then again by suppressing the study's publication. By doing this, they are trying to get people to purchase food at their amusement parks that may be unhealthy for them, and has caused the nutrition details to be compromised overall.


Utilitarianism looks at the overall happiness of the stakeholders and attempts to maximize that happiness. With this decision to suppress the publication, the stakeholders would not be happy, thus it is unethical in this form of ethics. As mentioned above, the shareholders who hold stock in the Walt Disney company, this sort of scandal can cost thousands, even million of dollars in financial lost. The long term security that people try to achieve by investing in Disney can be dismantled by scandals like this. It raises the question "What else have they suppressed?" and "what will they suppress in the future regardless of them being caught once?" These types of questions can cause reputation to collapse and the benefit of shareholders investments to be stripped from the company.

More importantly, the customers who eat at the amusement parks can't trust the study's outcome, and with the publication being suppressed, they can't make decisions rationally. When people have diseases, or are trying to avoid diseases, that are depended on nutrition, scandals like this cause them to loose faith in the company, which in turn can cause them to avoid going to the amusement parks, cruises, resorts, and other themed locations that Disney owns. Disney, in turn, should have attempted to maximize happiness in both the stakeholders and the company by publicly denouncing the study with an explanation as to why they believe the study should be discredited. By doing this, customers would have the ability to be happy by making their own decisions, while the company would be happy by clearly separating themselves from Hill and his past scandals. 

Virtue Theory

The Virtue Theory is a theory based on Aristotle's ethics, and focuses around the the characteristics that allow things to function properly, or virtues as the name suggests. Virtues depend on the thing's function and the thing's circumstances, and to determine how to act in any situation, the mean between the extremes must be found, then acted upon. The four main characteristics are honesty, courage, justice, and temperance. 

Honesty can sway from absolute honesty and absolute dishonesty, and in this circumstance, Disney did not act honestly, but acted more towards the dishonesty side of the scale. By suppressing Hill's study from release by pressuring the publishing company, Disney was not honest towards their stakeholders. They attempted to withhold information about Hill's past and the association with Hill to begin with, and therefore were not acting according to this theory.  The extremes of courage range from cowardice to rashness, and in this situation Disney was acting rash in their decision to cover up the study. By acting quickly and not taking time to come up with a better solution, the company ended up digging themselves into a deeper hole with their stakeholders and could of caused some serious damage to the financials or their reputation. The courageous action would of been to make a public announcement explaining the situation with Hill and how, in the companies opinion, the study should be repealed and conducted with someone more credible as to allow the stakeholders to make their own decisions, while also gaining a better reputation for the company. With justice ranging from righteousness to corruption, it is clear to see that Disney was more towards the corruption side of the scale.

Even with temperance, Disney was not ethical in its decision making. Temperance, or self restraint, covers everything from abstinence to radicalness. Disney was radical in their decision to suppress the study's release, which goes against this theory and, again, could have acted in a more ethical way with some patience and a public announcement. Based off of these four basic virtues, it is clear that Disney was not ethical in their decision to pressure the the publisher about this study.

“About - Leadership, Management Team, Global, History, Awards, Corporate Responsibility.” The Walt Disney Company,

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Consumers - Using the Nutrition Facts Label: A How-To Guide for Older Adults.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition,

“Healthy Theme Park Meals?” Food and Brand Lab, 2016,

Kaplan, Sheila. “Disney Tried to Suppress Nutrition Study on Its Theme Park Meals.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 8 Apr. 2016,

O’Connor, Anahad. “Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Aug. 2015,

Olinger, David. “CU Nutrition Expert Accepts $550,000 from Coca-Cola for Obesity Campaign.” The Denver Post, The Denver Post, 6 June 2016,

Olinger, David. “CU Nutrition Expert Who Took Coca-Cola Money Steps Down.” The Denver Post, The Denver Post, 6 June 2016,

Rucker, Robert B., and Michael R. Rucker. “Nutrition: Ethical Issues and Challenges.” Nutrition Research, Elsevier, 20 Oct. 2016,

Strauss, Karsten. “The World's Most Reputable Companies, 2016.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 13 Apr. 2016,

1 comment:

  1. If I were a parent, I would be concerned considering everything you listed above. Disney is the happiest place on Earth and naturally, most children want to go and as adults who are concerned for our children, we want to know what is going in their bodies. Most people would think that Disney would have their bases covered since its such a business God, but I guess not.