WASHINGTON — First Lady Michelle Obama urged food industry executives to increase their advertising of healthful products for kids, carefully returning to the debate over food marketing and childhood obesity after facing criticism for largely avoiding the controversial fight.
"All of you, more than anyone else, have the power to shape our kids' tastes and desires," Obama said Wednesday in remarks directed at food and media companies that have resisted attempts to link advertising to obesity.
"You all know that our kids are like little sponges. They absorb whatever is around them," she said. "But they don't yet have the ability to question and analyze what they're told."
Obama made the remarks before she convened dozens of business representatives, lobbyists, nutrition advocates and government officials for a meeting on the issue. The private session, organized by both the first lady's office and the president's policy advisors, now positions Michelle Obama as the facilitator of the debate.
As the most prominent anti-obesity advocate in the country, Obama initially indicated she would push for food companies to change their advertising, which often uses popular cartoon characters to sell sugary products in ads that blanket children's television shows.
But the first lady surprised many advocates by staying silent in 2011 while food and media companies banded together to kill a federal proposal aimed at pushing the industry to limit such practices.
Obama since has said relatively little on the issue, focusing on other elements of her anti-obesity push such as exercising, making fruits and vegetables more available in poor communities and, most recently, urging kids to drink more water.
Her return to the topic was welcomed by some who said her prominent role would elevate the issue and put renewed pressure on companies to change their ways.
"I think this is a starting point," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "For the first lady and the White House saying they are going to focus on food marketing and make it a priority, that's significant."
Obama, however, made no promises for action and offered no proposals. Advocates in the meeting said White House officials solicited ideas but gave no clear indication of what steps they would take next.
As she has throughout her anti-obesity campaign, the first lady, who did not attend the meeting after her speech, adopted an encouraging approach and cheerleading tone in her remarks.
Obama thanked the food companies for developing convenient products that helped her feed her two daughters as a working mom before coming to the White House. She urged them to use the same "magic of marketing and advertising" to make fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods as appealing to children as salty snacks.
The first lady held up Birds Eye as an example of a company that successfully increased sales of vegetables by ramping up advertising to children. She noted Disney's decision to limit licensing of its characters.
She also praised a group of 17 major food companies that have agreed to a self-regulatory initiative, in part to ward off possible government regulation. Advertising standards adopted by the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative "are beginning to have an impact," Obama said. "I know this wasn't easy."
A report from the Federal Trade Commission released late last year found that spending on television advertising aimed at children had fallen nearly 20% from 2006 to 2009. But the report also noted that companies were increasing their spending on online ads, which rose 50%.
Researchers say online ads — embedded in games and social media — are more effective at reaching children than television.
A leading industry group said it welcomed the dialogue at the White House and argued that the advertising landscape had changed under the "robust, voluntary" self-regulation initiative followed by the 17 companies, which include General Mills, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.
"When it comes to responsible marketing, the food-and-beverage industry's commitment is clear," the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. said in a statement.
Many advocates and academics argue that the self-regulatory efforts are far from sufficient and have resulted in a patchwork approach.
Nearly three-quarters of food ads that target children use familiar characters to sell the products, and nearly three-quarters of those ads are for foods that are relatively high in salt, sugar or fat, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Dale Kunkel, a University of Arizona communications professor who worked on the study, said those findings demonstrate why he'd like to see a more forceful approach from the White House.
"You have to convey to the industry that this is a fix-it-or-else situation and no one has done that. Everyone is saying, 'Oh, please, oh, please.' That simply isn't adequate leverage to get the industry to take steps that would protect children but be contrary to their economic interests," he said.
Kunkel called for a more aggressive message: "If you don't respond there will be consequences. The government will regulate or parents will rise up against you."