This past week, Michelle Obama gathered 100 food industry representatives, academic experts and public-health advocates for a “summit” at the White House to discuss junk food marketing to children. The event included public remarks by the first lady, followed by a closed-door discussion among attendees, ostensibly to come up with some solutions. Her speech was better than I had anticipated. As someone who was skeptical about the first lady’s “Let’s Move” program from the beginning, with good reason as it turned out, I am happy to report she didn’t pull any punches. Simply by shining a light on the critical role that marketing plays in influencing children’s eating habits, the first lady has taken away the food industry’s most common refrain: The solution is for parents to do a better job. Sadly, this sentiment is still extremely common among the American public and is the biggest obstacle advocates face in advancing the cause to protect children against corporate exploitation. But, as I’ve long argued, both ideas are true: parents have a responsibility to feed their kids right, and corporations should not take advantage of children’s vulnerabilities. Here is how Mrs. Obama described children’s susceptibility to marketing:
“You all know that our kids are like little sponges – they absorb whatever is around them. But they don’t yet have the ability to question and analyze what they’re told. Instead, they believe just about everything they see and hear, especially if it’s on TV. And when the average child is now spending nearly eight hours a day in front of some kind of screen, many of their opinions and preferences are being shaped by the marketing campaigns you all create. And that’s where the problem comes in.”
Next, the first lady explained how ads get children to nag their parents, saying that, “Kids who see foods advertised on TV are significantly more likely to ask for them at the store – a phenomenon known as ‘pester power’ … And research shows that a child’s first request for a product happens as early as 24 months, and, 75 percent of the time, this request takes place in a grocery store.” Mrs. Obama also explained how marketing works to influence what children ask for and how that makes parents’ jobs so hard, saying that 45 percent of kids’ food requests were for junk food such as burgers and fries and candy. “So from the time our kids are still in diapers, we as parents are already fighting an uphill battle to get them interested in the foods that will actually nourish them.” Then she even dispensed with another of industry’s favorite talking points: that parents should just “turn off” the TV:
“Now, like many parents, Barack and I do our best to limit our daughters’ TV time. But, as you all know, these ads aren’t just on TV. They’re on the Internet, in video games, smart phones, billboards. They’re in schools and store displays. They’re everywhere, and parents just can’t keep up, no matter how hard we try. So whatever we all might believe about personal responsibility and self-determination, I think we can agree that it doesn’t necessarily apply to children.”
My favorite line came as she called on industry “to empower parents instead of undermining them as they try to make healthier choices for their families.” The first lady said that industry should stop undermining parents. That’s a pretty big deal. Thank you, Mrs. Obama, for echoing the sentiments that so many parents, healthcare professionals and advocates have been saying for a long time. Only one problem: The first lady’s office is in the wrong wing of the White House. Imagine if these words were uttered by the president instead. What if our nation’s leader told the executives of food and media corporations to stop undermining parents? How much more powerful would those words sound coming from Mr. Obama? Now imagine an alternative scenario to the secret “closed-door” meeting that came after the speech, where various “stakeholders” were brought together in an unrealistic attempt to forge voluntary solutions defined only by industry, given that the first lady has zero policy-making authority. What might that look like? How about hearings in Congress during which medical and health experts testified about the terrible toll that diet-related diseases such as diabetes are taking on children and the correlations between predatory marketing and children’s eating habits, and parents explained how their best efforts were undermined by the ubiquity of junk food and targeted marketing? Now imagine our political representatives holding a dramatic hearing that demanded answers from the CEOs of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Nickelodeon about why they continue to target children in the midst of this public-health crisis. All of this would be followed up by legislation or regulation to legally restrict industry’s predatory business practices – in the name of protecting children from exploitation. Of course, this is all just fantasy: neither President Obama nor our very broken Congress has shown any willingness to take on the food industry. Indeed, when the Interagency Working Group (led by the Federal Trade Commission, the agency that regulates advertising) came together in President Obama’s first term to try and improve the food industry’s own voluntary guidelines by simply making them science-based, the entire effort went down in flames. Now Mrs. Obama is trying to use her charm to accomplish what four federal agencies could not. Of course, food corporations may make minor tweaks to their marketing practices in hopes of gaining the first lady’s stamp of approval and scoring a press conference with her, as Disney and Walmart did. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking these will be meaningful or long-lasting improvements. This sort of voluntary self-regulation has a long track record (across numerous industries) of generating a lot of positive PR with few actual results. In her speech, the first lady joked that some industry members may be waiting things out, figuring that “in a few years, this lady will be gone and this whole ‘Let’s Move’ thing will finally be over, so we can go back to business as usual.” That’s exactly what they are thinking. But she correctly reminded them that this issue isn’t going away when the Obamas leave office in a few years. Even if today’s elected leaders lack the backbone to protect children’s health, the public climate is growing increasingly inhospitable to predatory marketing. For that we have the first lady, advocacy groups such as Corporate Accountability International, and a growing chorus of organizations and advocates to thank.