Let’s Move! or how Michelle Obama’s failure against junk food marketing has been presented as a success
When Michelle Obama launched the third campaign of her Let's Move! in 2013, she claimed that her initiative "changed the conversation in this country", the US, meaning that childhood obesity was finally recognised as a health crisis. But the country wasn't the only one changing the conversation; Michelle Obama herself progressively and discreetly schifted the approach of Let's Move!.
The project was founded in 2010 with the purpose of wiping out child obesity within a generation. In order to tackle this problem, Michelle Obama and her team drafted a list with the main action points. These were some of them: to increase the investment to serve healthier food in schools, end food deserts, encourage physical activity and help parents to make healthier choices thanks to labelling, marketing-related initiatives and information campaigns. Let's Move! would put some points into practice in partnership with companies within the food and the communication industries.
In 2010, before the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Michelle Obama pronounced a straightforward and clear speech on the joint responsability of parents, schools, and food industry over childhood obesity. Precisely, one of the main parts was that referred to how food companies market their products to kids.
"As a mom, I know it is my responsibility -and no one else’s- to raise my kids. But what does it mean when so many parents are finding that their best efforts are undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at their kids? And what are these ads teaching kids about food and nutrition? (...) That it’s okay to eat unhealthy foods because they’re endorsed by the cartoon characters our children love and the celebrities our teenagers look up to?"
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At the time that the First Lady spoke out these words, a task force appointed by the Congress a year earlier was working on a draft which would contain voluntary recommendations to guide food firms on how to market their products to children. This group -comprised by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)- presented their conclusions in 2011 with a preliminary report that, despite its self-regulatory nature, seemed to not go down well in the industry.
Some of the big companies took this as an allusion and complained to the White House, making these suggested standards come to nothing. Michelle Obama or no one from the administration replied to those who demanded support to officially publish these guidelines. It's believed that this could have had something to do with the amounts "invested" by some beverage and food groups since Barack Obama's presidency began. According to this special report by Reuters, 50 groups spent over $175 million lobbying since 2009 to 2012 (the year when the article was published).
Michelle Obama's own ties to food industry have been also pointed as the reason of this 'withdrawal'. From 2005 to 2007, when her husband started running for candidate, she was the director of Treehouse Foods, a retail supplier working with chains such as Wal-Mart -then criticised by Barack Obama-.
In any case, after this episode, Michelle Obama's conversation changed. Let's Move! took a more individual approach, focusing on the need of doing excercise and making healthy choices when shopping and cooking. Neither the First Lady nor her initiative emphasised much the industry's responsability.
However, in 2013 she brought up the subject again during a White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children. In this occassion, she gave a similar speech introducing a new participant in child obesity's battle: the media. The discourse was the presentation of a new set of guidelines -more lenient than the previous one-, leaded this time by the FCC:
"I’ve spent a lot of time talking about food and beverage companies. But those of you from media companies also play a critical role in marketing food to our children, and I want to call on all of you to do your part as well. That means, for example, limiting the use of your licensed characters to market unhealthy food to kids, and limiting unhealthy food ads in your programming".
It has to be said that when she pronounced these words she already had some aces up her sleeve to show off. One of the partners of Let's Move! had adhered to this commitment:
"Disney has pledged to do just that, and I know that other media companies can follow suit".
No one can argue the significant achievements accomplished by the First Lady in this field; she has actively campaigned to fight children obesity with Let's Move! by using her strong speeches, her appearances on TV and her savvy for social media. The organic garden she planted in the White House's lawn is another milestone of her endeavours.
However, the partnership of Let's Move! with some food companies that have done more for silently killing reforms by pressing the administration rather than implementing them, doesn't seem right. These companies are benefiting from the positive branding resulting from this alliance without having undertaken meaningful, crucial measures to help kids to have a healthier childhood. Let's remember that the fact of doing exercise or being skinny doesn't necessarily mean that the diet behind is healthy.
When Michelle Obama first launched Let's Move!, she addressed part of her efforts to ask food industry to do its part. She was referring to how companies market their products to kids. Shortly after, an interagency group working for the Congress released a document with voluntary guidelines advising the self-regulation of these companies.
Despite its advisory nature, many food firms complained to the White House and to Michelle Obama. Both remained silent notwithstanding the demands of the guidelines' supporters. Since then, Let's Move! changed its approach, and so did the First Lady and the successive advisory groups. The companies that in front of the cameras were partnering with Michelle Obama's initiative -benefiting from what that means in terms of branding-, were pressing her behind the scenes to water down her and the Congress endeavours.