Washington, DC - First Lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday issued a ringing call for corporate responsibility during the White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children. America's food and entertainment companies must "empower" parents' efforts to raise healthier kids by getting impressionable youngsters to clamor for nutritious foods the way they now beg for treats laden with calories, sugar and fat, Mrs. Obama said.
"I’m here today with one simple request-- and that is to do even more and move even faster to market responsibly to our kids," Mrs. Obama said.
Speaking from beneath the historic portrait of Lincoln in the packed State Dining Room, Mrs. Obama laid out her vision for continuing the "cultural shift" toward healthier eating she said is already underway thanks to her Let's Move! campaign.
More than 100 guests attended the event, billed by the White House as the first of its kind at 1600 Penn. They included representatives from food, beverage and media giants, as well as academic experts, parent leaders and public health advocates.
So the First Lady was also doing double duty as a peace maker, ensuring that corporate representatives and their most vocal critics were all represented. Before the nearly four-hour summit was over, the long-embattled sides would be forced to huddle together behind closed doors with Administration officials, in "breakout sessions" designed for brainstorming ideas so they can actually work together to achieve the First Lady's ambitious plan.
Mrs. Obama, an old hand at dealing with partisanship, asked the activists to be more "constructive" and "strategic" with their criticism of the food industry: "We're all in this together," she said.
Mrs. Obama was also paving the way to a better reception for Let's Move! in the years ahead. Academics, public health experts and parent bloggers have routinely blasted her initiative, though these are the people with whom she ostensibly has the most in common, as the Mom in Chief and leader of the most multi-faceted and sweeping American campaign ever launched for child health.
Some of the First Lady's most vocal critics were perched on the gold ladderback chairs filling the room. Being invited to the White House to rub elbows with Mrs. Obama and Let's Move! Executive Director Sam Kass could well help them better understand the massive project.
Mrs. Obama explained her marketing goals in detail. While putting the brakes on marketing junkfood is "critical," Mrs. Obama said, "it’s not enough."
"You all can sell just about anything to our kids," Mrs. Obama told the corporate leaders.
"We also need companies to actually market healthy foods to kids--foods that have real nutritional value, foods that are fortified with real fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy."
The three-and-half-year old Let's Move! campaign is built on an ever-growing scaffold of pledges from the private sector, and Mrs. Obama has gotten commitments from some of America's biggest private-sector players: Walmart, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, Disney, Time-Warner, Inc., all of whom had representatives at her summit.
Representatives from other companies that have not formally joined Let's Move! were also on hand, including Taco Bell, McDonald's, Cartoon Network, and Subway. The First Lady wants--and needs--their support. Especially when it comes to marketing.
Children, Mrs. Obama said, are "little sponges" who average about eight hours a day of screen time, soaking up thousands of ads yearly on everything from TV to smartphones to video games, with 86 percent of these for "products loaded with sugar, fat, salt."
"Our kids see an average of just one ad a week for healthy products like water to fruits and vegetables," Mrs. Obama said. "Just one ad a week."
To "make healthy eating a way of life for our kids and for our families," corporations should use their licensed costumed and cartoon characters to tout fruits and vegetables the way Shrek was used for a campaign by the Vidalia Onion Association, which had kids begging for the unlikely root, Mrs. Obama said.
They can also follow the lead of Nickelodeon and Birds Eye, Mrs. Obama said, which last year created a campaign that featured one of the stars of the tween hit iCarly promoting frozen vegetables. It led to a twenty percent sales spike for Birds Eye in just two months, she said, and noted that Sesame Street has only promoted healthy food for years.
"I am not asking anyone to take the fun out of childhood," Mrs. Obama said. "As we all know, treats are one of the best parts of being a kid. Instead, the goal here is to empower parents instead of undermining them as they try to make healthier choices for their families."
The First Lady pointed to her newly launched Drink Up campaign promoting water consumption as an example of best practices in advertising. Filled with celebrity supporters, and backed by industry including soda behemoths PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, Drink Up is a model everyone can use, Mrs. Obama said.
"When it comes to believing in the power of marketing to promote healthy choices to our kids, I’m not just talking the talk, I’m actually walking the walk on this one," Mrs. Obama said.
Before the convening began, smiling butlers offered Mrs. Obama's guests tall glasses of water from an aqua bar set up between the soaring white pillars in the foyer outside the State Dining Room.
Turning to the role of media companies, Mrs. Obama said that if The Walt Disney Company can change its approach to marketing food to kids, "other media companies can follow suit." Last year, Mrs. Obama joined Disney Chairman and CEO Robert A. Iger at a press conference as he announced major changes to Disney's food marketing to children, across theme parks and media holdings.
By 2015, Iger said, "all food and beverage products advertised, sponsored, or promoted" across Disney media platforms must meet nutritional standards in line with federal dietary guidelines, and "promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables, limit portion size and calories, and have a reduction in sugar, saturated fat, and sodium."
Though she has no legislative power of her own and her husband's Administration is trumped by what may be remembered as the most obstructionist Congress in history, the calls for Mrs. Obama to use the Let's Move! campaign to get regulations in place to combat child obesity are a fever dream frequently voiced by public health advocates, parents, and academics.
In 2011, an effort by the Federal Trade Commission to get food and beverage companies to agree to voluntary self-regulatory guidelines for marketing to children sank under the weight of criticism from both lawmakers and the private sector, amidst fears that it would lead to the kind of hard-core regulation demanded by activists.
In its place, a coalition of seventeen food giants, including PepsiCo, Kraft, and Burger King, unveiled the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), looser self-regulatory guidelines that offered standards for marketing foods to children under age twelve. The project has been around since 2006, but had new life breathed into it after the FTC unveiled its proposal.
Mrs. Obama for the first time praised CFBAI on the record.
"Forging consensus among fierce competitors is a challenge to say the least," she said. "But these new standards are beginning to have an impact, and I commend all of these companies for taking action."
The role of advocates and activists...
As the First Lady gave advice to her activist guests, she suggested that they temper their frequent negative criticism targeting America's corporations, and instead support the healthy changes that have actually been enacted.
"The advocates and experts here today have an important responsibility too," Mrs. Obama said. "Your words matter. You all can help either provide incentives to change, or you can be barriers to change."
"We need you to be constructive in your criticisms and strategic in your calls to action, because when it comes to marketing, it can be hard for companies to take risks."
She did not mention the attacks directed at Let's Move!.
The State Dining Room was pin-drop silent except for the whir of digital camera shutters for most of the 23 minutes Mrs. Obama spoke. The lightest moment came as she jabbed the corporate representatives, warning that those who are hoping to "wait out" her husband's second term "when this whole Let’s Move! thing will finally be over" may be sorely disappointed.
"I know that none of you here are thinking that way," Mrs. Obama deadpanned, to laughter.
"But if you know anyone who is--you might want to remind them that I didn’t create this issue, and it’s not going to go away three and a half years from now when I’m no longer First Lady."
A brighter future...
As she closed, Mrs. Obama pledged to use her considerable soft-glove charm and influence to spotlight companies that step up to her plate, saying she is eager to "celebrate and highlight" their efforts.
"That’s what I’ve been doing since I first started working on this issue, whether it was visiting a Walmart stocked with fresh produce, or having dinner at an Olive Garden with a healthier kids’ menu, or hanging out with Mickey to celebrate Disney’s achievements on this issue," Mrs. Obama said.
“And I am eager to have these kinds of celebrations with every company in this room.”
Mrs. Obama received a standing ovation as she finished, and exited through a side door leading into the Old Family Dining Room.
Closed to press...
The press was ushered out after the First Lady departed, and Kass, who introduced Mrs. Obama before her remarks, led the rest of the closed-to-press convening. According to the program given to guests, they heard from four speakers. (Kass, above)
The first was Michelle Rusk, a Staff Attorney, Division of Advertising Practices, at the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Protection Bureau, who spoke on the "Federal Trade Commission Food Marketing Report 2012." She was followed by Elaine Kolish, the Director of Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, and the Vice President of Council of Better Business Bureaus, who spoke on "Self Regulation Successes of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative."
Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group was next, speaking about "Food Marketing to Kids: New Frontiers Need Better Protections." Her foundation teaches activists how to interact with media. Susan Fox, Vice President, Government Relations for Disney, concluded the presentations, speaking about "Disney: A Commitment to Healthy Living." The experts' presentations included slide shows and graphics, guests told Obama Foodorama.
After Kass made closing remarks, the guests were split into two groups to participate in the breakout sessions. The overall title for the sessions was "Discussion of Opportunities and Barriers to Advancing Progress."
Kass and Julie Moreno, Surgeon General Assignee to the Domestic Policy Council, led one group, and Elyse Cohen, Let's Move! Deputy Director, and Ryan Shadrick Wilson of Partnership for a Healthier America led the other group.
According to the program given to guests, Group 1 was scheduled to discuss "Shifting the way we market foods to kids: What are tactics for marketing healthy choices? How can we make healthy foods more attractive to kids?." Group 2 was scheduled to discuss "How can we continue to make progress in reducing marketing of unhealthy foods to kids?"
"I hope that all of you will really engage," Mrs. Obama encouraged her guests about the breakout sessions.
"I hope that you’ll really talk to each other, and learn from each other, and come up with new solutions that will make a real difference for our kids. We want to hear from everyone involved in this issue--from industry leaders to advocates to researchers and to parents--because we’re all in this together."
Guests in the room who asked not to be identified by name told Obama Foodorama that during the session with Kass, a number of corporate representatives complained that their many health efforts have been under-appreciated by advocates.
Praise from summit guests...
Holding out the olive branch worked for Mrs. Obama. After the summit, she got praise from some of her advocate guests. Dr. Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, last week blasted Mrs. Obama for her water campaign, arguing in a post on her Food Politics blog that it should also be against soda and other sugary beverages.
But Nestle on Wednesday saluted Mrs. Obama for taking the lead on marketing to children, hailing her speech as "phenomenal."
Advertising targeting children is the biggest bone of contention among public health advocates, said Nestle, and one of the major problems parents face. She said she hopes Mrs. Obama will continue to pressure corporations to take action.
"It was a fantastic speech," Nestle said, "and fantastic to have the First Lady pay so much attention to this."
Margo G. Wootan, whose Center for Science in the Public Interest recently rebuked Mrs. Obama for inviting Shaquille O'Neal to be a Let's Move! ambassador thanks to his self-monikered line of sodas, issued a statement applauding the convening.
"Kudos to First Lady Michelle Obama for bringing much needed attention to the problem of food marketing to children," Wootan, who serves as Policy Director, said. "Food marketing is at the epicenter of the childhood obesity problem."
There's more to come. In July, Kass announced during a hard-driving speech to food executives that Mrs. Obama will be devoting herself to marketing issues in the months ahead.
*The full transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks.
*The list of attendees released by the White House.
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama