Live From the White House: Michelle Obama Challenges Big Food To Use Their Marketing Power For Good

Official White House Photo by Amanda LucidonA guest post from Tara Welty the editor in chief of Instructor and Scholastic Art Magazines.

This week First Lady Michelle Obama convened an elite group of executives from food & beverage and media industries as well as thought leaders and advocates working on the issue of childhood obesity. I was in the room. I’ll share the inside scoop.

Sam Kass, a White House chef and executive director of Let’s Move, introduced Mrs. Obama, saying, “We are not here to re-litigate controversies,” referencing the food industry’s reluctance last year to accept voluntary standards for marketing food to kids. The industry later instituted its own, less stringent policies, which advocates argued did not go far enough.

With all this history crowding the State Dining Room, it would be hard to deny an undercurrent of tension among the 100 guests, which included executives from McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Hershey, and General Mills seated side-by-side with advocates from MomsRising, Mocha Moms, and the National Parent Teacher Association. However, Mrs. Obama kept her remarks upbeat.

She highlighted the progress we’ve made to move the needle on childhood obesity. She noted that between 2008 and 2011 obesity rates among low-income preschoolers have dropped in 19 states. She also said that childhood obesity rates are falling in big cities like New York and Philadelphia, and in states like California and Mississippi. But, she said, “when 1 in 3 kids is still on track to develop diabetes and when diet has now surpassed smoking as the number one risk factor for disease and early death in this country, then clearly we still have more work to do.”

The First Lady challenged food & beverage companies not only to limit marketing foods high in salt, sugar, and fat to kids, but to actively market fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and other healthy foods to them.

[quote style="boxed"]You guys know how to get kids excited... Through the magic of marketing and advertising, all of you more than anyone else, have the power to shape our kids’ tastes and desires.[/quote]

Mrs. Obama said that the average sees thousands of food advertisements each year. A full 86% of those ads are for junk foods, while kids see just one ad a week for healthy foods.

The First Lady also spoke of pester power—industry term for a phenomenon in which kids who see food advertisements on TV are significantly more likely to ask for those foods in the store.  She said that, according to one study 45% of kids’ requests are for candy, cookies, burgers, and fries, while just 3% are for fruits and vegetables.

With this meeting, Mrs. Obama is trying to use her “pester power” to encourage food & beverage companies to change their tactics, offering more healthy products and marketing them to kids more aggressively. Pointing to a recent success, the First Lady recognized Bird’s Eye Vegetables and Vidalia Onion, noting that their marketing outreach to kids and tweens using the licensed characters iCarly and Shrek netted significant increases their sales.  Of course, these are companies that produce vegetables. Convincing companies that produce processed foods to market whole foods instead is much tougher proposition.

Following Mrs. Obama’s remarks, participants met for three hours of roundtable discussions and brainstorming sessions. Press were excluded from part of the discussion to foster, “candid conversation,” according to a White House aide.  But oh to be a fly on the wall during those discussions!

What do you think? Is it the responsibility of corporations to market healthier food choices to our kids? If kids see more ads for fruits and veggies, are they more likely to eat them? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.