Michelle Obama Encourages Collaborative Food Marketing Effort to Empower Parents

First Lady Michelle Obama delivers remarks during a “Let’s Move!” food marketing convening in the State Dining Room of the White House, Sept. 18, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to executives from the food, advertising, and media industries; advocates; parent leaders; government agency representatives; and researchers about the power of marketing to influence kids’ food choices and the need for using this power to influence healthier food options for our nation’s children. The goal of the White House meeting, sponsored by Let’s Move, the national campaign to reduce child obesity,  was “to begin a constructive, collaborative dialogue and strategize about ways to shift the marketing of unhealthy products to healthier products and decrease the marketing of unhealthy products to kids.”


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.”   She told food executives “you guys know better than anyone how to get kids excited. You’ve done it before, and we need you to do it again. And fortunately you have everything it takes to get this done because through the magic of marketing and advertising, all of you, more than anyone else, have the power to shape our kids’ tastes and desires.”  You can see the full speech here.


Michelle Obama’s talk appropriately focused attention on the role of food marketing to children.  Her pleas to begin a “lively and constructive dialogue” on food marketing to children should be informed by several recent scientific reports on the subject.  Health advocates and researchers can contribute to this dialogue by ensuring their findings are part of the discussion. 


In Obesity Reviews, Sara Galbraith-Emami and Tim Lobstein published their systematic review of the data on the impact of codes on food marketing to children.  They compiled data  on the levels of exposure of children to the advertising of less healthy foods since the introduction of such statutory and voluntary codes.  They reported that results showed “a sharp division in the evidence, with scientific, peer-reviewed papers showing that high levels of such advertising of less healthy foods continue to be found in several different countries worldwide. In contrast, the evidence provided in industry-sponsored reports indicates a remarkably high adherence to voluntary codes.”  They concluded that “adherence to voluntary codes may not sufficiently reduce the advertising of foods which undermine healthy diets, or reduce children’s exposure to this advertising.”


Last June, an international group of researchers issued the Bellagio Declaration on Countering Big Food’s Undermining of Healthy Food Policies.  The Conference concluded that “the actions of Big Food have been the most significant force in blocking public health efforts to promote healthy food policies and reduce obesity in many parts of the world.”  Sixteen scientific reports on child obesity in various region and on assessments of food marketing  presented at the conference provided the evidence to support this conclusion.


Finally, a recent article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine analyzed the self-regulatory Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), the code of the US food and beverage industry.  They concluded the initiative  is “limited in scope and effectiveness: expenditures increased for many noncovered marketing techniques (i.e., product placement, movie/video, cross-promotion licenses, athletic sponsorship, celebrity fees, events, philanthropy, and other); only two restaurants are members of CFBAI, and nonpremium restaurant marketing expenditures were up by $86.0 million (22.5% inflation-adjusted increase); industry pledges do not protect children aged >11 years, and some marketing appears to have shifted to older children; and, nutritional content remains poor. Continued monitoring of and improvements to food marketing to youth are needed.”


These and other reports suggest that the weight of the evidence is that the food industry does not play a constructive role in developing healthier food marketing policies.  As public officials in both the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere call for “constructive dialogues” with the food industry, those seeking to promote evidence-based policies will need to challenge those who promote strategies that appear to be ineffective. 


This recent evidence suggests three important lessons for the type of collaborative program Michelle Obama was advocating.  First, before negotiating any partnerships or collaboration, health advocates need to define clear terms of engagement with the food industry and explicitly define potential conflicts of interest   Second, any food industry commitments need to be evaluated by an independent group with adequate resources for assessment. Finally, partnerships are not a substitute for regulation or community mobilization to pressure industry.  Allowing food companies or their trade association to substitute the former for the latter undermines government authority to protect public health.