The White House - First Lady Michelle Obama was joined by Sesame Street's Elmo and Rosita on Wednesday as she announced a new marketing project she declared "incredibly important" to support her Let's Move! campaign.
Sesame Workshop, the foundation behind the iconic TV series, will offer free use of its licensed Muppet characters to members of the global trade group Produce Marketing Association (PMA) for two years, Mrs. Obama said, for a series of national advertising campaigns designed to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.
After spending three years touting the "delicious" factor of healthy food in an extensive series of media appearances, Mrs. Obama is now fighting fire with fire in the latest evolution of her child obesity initiative, currently devoted to getting food corporations to actively promote healthier foods--and water, with the recently launched Drink Up campaign.
By a yet-to-be determined date in mid-2014, kids might be wooed with stickers of Elmo on eggplant. Packaged radicchio could be promoted by Rosita, the first bilingual Muppet in the show's history. Big Bird could fluff his feathers on bunches of bananas. Abby Cadabby might hawk cucumbers. Even Cookie Monster--who long ago declared cookies a "sometimes" food--might be on bags of carrots.
"It’s about showing our kids that healthy food can be fun and that fruits and vegetables just don't make us feel good, but they also taste good," Mrs. Obama said.
"This is a huge deal," she added. PMA's 2,200 members represent the full supply chain of the produce and mass-market floral industry, from seed producers to supermarket or foodservice outlets. So the scale of the Muppet partnership could be vast.
It is the first project to be announced since Mrs. Obama hosted food corporations, public health advocates, parents, and academics in September for the first-ever White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children, where she challenged food companies to change their practices and actively promote healthier fare to kids.
"It is no surprise that Sesame Workshop was the first organization to answer this call," Mrs. Obama said, and saluted H. Melvin Ming, President and CEO, who beamed from the front row. Since 2004, Sesame Workshop has run the Healthy Habits for Life initiative, which promotes "healthy eating, physical activity and rest and relaxation."
The army of Muppets joining Let's Move! are much needed to combat the sea of advertising kids are exposed to for unhealthy foods, Mrs. Obama said, with "the average child" assaulted by "thousands of food advertisements each year" across media platforms.
"And 86 percent of these ads are for products loaded with sugar, fat or salt," Mrs. Obama said. "By contrast, our kids see an average of just one ad--just one ad--a week for healthy products like water and fruits and vegetables. Just one."
To support her argument that Muppets can impact kids' eating habits, Mrs. Obama pointed to a study by researchers at Cornell University's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management that tracked how Elmo branding impacted elementary school students' choices in school lunch lines (details of the study are in this post).
"Researchers gave children a choice between eating an apple, a cookie or both. Surprisingly, the vast majority of kids went for the cookies. I might do the same," Mrs. Obama said, to laughter.
"But when the researchers put Elmo stickers on the apples and let the kids choose again, nearly double the number of kids went for an apple. That’s right, just that little Elmo sticker, the power of Elmo, was enough to get kids excited about eating a healthy snack."
Before she sat down at a table for a photo-op where she mugged with Elmo and Rosita and discussed the wonders of veggie-topped pizza, Mrs. Obama laid out her vision for how parents' future shopping trips will go off.
"Just imagine what will happen when we take our kids to the grocery store, and they see Elmo and Rosita and the other Sesame Street Muppets they love up and down the produce aisle," Mrs. Obama said.
"Imagine what it will be like to have our kids begging us to buy them fruits and vegetables instead of cookies, candy and chips."
Like all of Mrs. Obama's private-sector partnerships, the deal between PMA and Sesame Workshop will be overseen by Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), the non-profit foundation that supports the Let's Move! campaign, for which Mrs. Obama is honorary chair.
Sesame Workshop and PMA signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding with PHA, Lawrence Soler, PHA CEO, told Obama Foodorama.
Still, the full details of the Muppet deal are in the process of being worked out, Bryan Silbermann, President and CEO of PMA, told Obama Foodorama.
He's thrilled about the free licensing, he said, as are PMA members, who "just found out" on Wednesday, hours before Mrs. Obama welcomed Elmo and Rosita to the White House.
Thus, said Silbermann, he has no idea how many of the 2,200 PMA members will ultimately use the Muppets.
In the meantime, a seven-member task-force is being formed to identify how to best exploit the highly valuable marketing tool, Silbermann said.
And there will definitely be an international element, Silbermann said. PMA represents produce suppliers from foreign countries, and will be exploring how to get the Muppet branding onto imported produce, which makes up about 28% percent of the US market, Silbermann said.
PMA members also provide products for America's school lunches, and Silbermann said the organization will be looking into getting Muppet-branded fruits and vegetables into school cafeterias, too.
One part is certain, Silbermann said: The deal won't stop in the produce aisles. Sesame Workshop is offering PMA members the use of its vast archive of nutrition education materials. These can be passed on to grocery stores, parents, families, clubs, and, if all goes as planned, schools, Silbermann said.
The partnership was brokered after a series of discussions between PHA, PMA, and Sesame Workshop that were led by Let's Move! Executive Director Sam Kass, Silbermann said.
Jeff Dunn, a PMA member who is the President and CEO of Bolthouse Farms, was also part of the discussion mix, Silbermann said. Dunn is the visionary behind Bolthouse's campaign to sell bagged baby carrots as America's new "junk food."
Dunn was at the White House on Wednesday and for Mrs. Obama's marketing summit. Earlier this month he joined Kass and Silbermann on a conference call with PMA members to discuss promoting produce to children.
The potential impact, and monitoring the partnership...
Of course whether or not the deal will cause an increase in children's produce consumption remains to be seen. (Above: Vegetables build muscle, Mrs. Obama said, and showed off her biceps)
In 2012, Sesame Workshop reported that it had conducted its own study on the influence of its characters on kids' food choices, a follow-up to an earlier study that found that Elmo on pictures of broccoli made kids reach for the photo card more often than for a photo of chocolate.
"We found that although stickers of Elmo and other favorite characters did not increase the appeal of healthy foods equal to that of more sugary or salty snacks, we were able to increase the appeal of any food when it contained a sticker of a Sesame Street character compared to a different food without a character or with an unknown character," Sesame Workshop said.
Cookies and chips still won the day. But Sesame Workshop also reported that kids were "more likely" to try new foods if they had Muppet stickers.
Dr. Marion Nestle, nutritionist, author, and Paulette Goodard Professor of Nutrition at New York University, attended the First Lady's marketing summit. Though she is pleased in general that Mrs. Obama has now turned her Let's Move! attention to marketing to children, Nestle said that because kids can't discriminate between marketing and entertainment, on ethical grounds she's "opposed to marketing anything to kids, whether it is good, bad, or indifferent."
But since "kids live in a marketing environment...it might as well be used to do good rather than harm," Nestle said. She billed the Muppet deal as "an interesting experiment."
"The people who sell baby carrots say their 'eat them like junk food' ads increased sales," Nestle said. "But did the campaign also reinforce the idea that kids are supposed to eat kids’ foods and are not supposed to eat foods that don’t come with cartoons or toys?"
Nestle said she hopes Let's Move! and/or Sesame Workshop researchers "have their evaluation methods in place and are already collecting baseline data."
PHA will track and monitor the new deal, and report on the progress, Soler said, as it does with all Let's Move! private sector commitments.
Silbermann, like Mrs. Obama, believes the Muppets will be the magic element that changes kids' food preferences. PMA has tried just about every trick in the marketing book to get kids interested in fruits and vegetables, Silbermann said, which has resulted in no increase in sales or consumption.
And health messages don't work with parents, he said.
"Telling parents fruits and vegetables are healthy has done nothing to increase sales," Silbermann said. "The Muppets will be a game changer."
The First Lady's guests...
Mrs. Obama's guests for the announcement in the State Dining Room were representatives from organizations that work with Let’s Move!, including child care providers, and Alliance for a Healthier Generation members, as well as parents, said her spokseman, Hannah August. PMA's immediate past Board Chairman Jan DeLyser also attended the event.
Kass and the First Lady's Chief of Staff, Tina Tchen, watched from the sidelines as Mrs. Obama spoke.
As of Wednesday, Mrs. Obama now has more than sixty private-sector partnerships for Let's Move!, Soler said. These include food, entertainment and athletic giants: Walmart, Disney, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, NIKE, Inc., Darden Restaurants, Inc., Kellogg, ConAgra, among others.
Mrs. Obama has previously engaged the Muppets to promote healthy eating and gardening. The First Lady made an appearance on Sesame Street in 2009 to teach gardening to the fluffy characters, and also filmed a PSA. Elmo appeared in a 2010 White House video to tout healthy changes to the National School Lunch Program, and Big Bird joined the First Lady in a White House video earlier this year for a discussion of healthy snacks.
Fall Kitchen Garden harvest...
After the announcement, Mrs. Obama changed her clothes before decamping to the South Lawn, where she hosted her first Fall harvest in her Kitchen Garden since 2011. (Above: Plucking broccoli with Elmo and Rosita)
Mrs. Obama was joined by Elmo, Rosita, and 23 school children invited from from DC, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland for the romp in the crop rows, which was followed by a garden-side picnic cooked by the White House chefs.
*The full transcript of the First Lady's remarks. CLICK HERE for the White House press release.
*CLICK HERE for links to all Let's Move! posts.
*CLICK HERE for links to all marketing posts.
*CLICK HERE for links to all Kitchen Garden posts.
*Photos & text by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama