WASHINGTON — Shortly after she launched her signature anti-obesity initiative more than three years ago, Michelle Obama signaled she would take on a contentious issue: advertising for snacks, soft drinks, sugary cereals and fast food aimed at children.
She denounced ads that use cartoon characters to push junk food. She bluntly told executives “to step it up” to improve the foods they market to children.
And she promoted a White House “action plan” on obesity that praised a federal effort to come up with voluntary marketing guidelines — the most significant attempt in decades to limit ads targeting children.
But when food and media companies — including many that supported her anti-obesity campaign — mounted a fierce lobbying battle against the guidelines in 2011, the first lady went silent.
It wasn’t until earlier this year, after the guidelines had been blocked, that Obama resumed her call for more responsible food marketing.
Nutrition advocates disagree over how to rein in food and beverage company practices that they believe contribute to obesity, including the roughly $1.8 billion spent each year on marketing to kids: Will companies respond to voluntary efforts or only to government pressure?
Obama has come down on the side of persuasion. She has used her celebrity to reward corporations that join her campaign to encourage children to eat better and exercise more. And she has largely avoided public policy fights that could pit her against the companies, arguing that obesity cannot be eradicated “by passing a bunch of laws in Washington.”
Administration officials say she has notched some notable successes, and they blame Congress for killing the marketing guidelines.
But some who see themselves as Obama’s allies in the fight against obesity believe her desire to create partnerships with industry kept her quiet when her voice would have counted most. Fourteen companies that back Obama’s anti-obesity campaign helped kill the voluntary advertising guidelines, lobbying reports and other records show.
“The White House got cold feet,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who had championed the guidelines. “It sort of undermines everything that the first lady was doing.”
Since Obama launched “Let’s Move!” in February 2010, White House officials have insisted that working with industry is the only way to achieve the first lady’s goal of ending the epidemic of childhood obesity in a generation.
“Business and business leaders are a vital component of the solution,” said Sam Kass, the executive director of Let’s Move! and the first lady’s senior policy advisor on nutrition. Obama declined a request for an interview.
The administration did secure industry backing for a requirement that restaurant menus list calorie information. And the first lady rallied support for a 2010 law that expanded the free school lunch program and set nutritional standards for food sold in schools.
But many public health advocates believe a more forceful approach is needed to limit food marketing.
“The industry has proven itself untrustworthy,” said Kelly D. Brownell of Duke University, a leading expert on obesity who has sometimes advised Obama’s program. “Somebody needs to lean on these companies more strongly.”
Obama has worked through the Partnership for a Healthier America; she is honorary chairwoman of the nonprofit group, which was set up to negotiate pledges from food providers to fight childhood obesity.
Wal-Mart has agreed to promote more healthful foods and build grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods. Darden, owner of the Olive Garden and other restaurants, promised to improve its children’s menus. And 16 food and beverage manufacturers, including Kraft, General Mills and Nestle, pledged to cut calories from their products.
The organization, however, has secured only a few pledges to change the way companies market food.
As she stepped up her campaign, the first lady had forcefully urged companies to limit advertising to kids.
“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?” she asked in a speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. in March 2010. “And what are these ads teaching kids about food and nutrition ... that it’s OK to eat unhealthy foods because they’re endorsed by the cartoon characters our children love and the celebrities our teenagers look up to?”
Public health advocates thought Obama would lead a change in how products were marketed to children. As far back as 2005, a report by the prestigious Institute of Medicine had found that television advertising influenced children, even toddlers, to seek out foods high in sugar, salt and fat, making the issue a central one for nutrition advocates.
“This is one of the easiest areas where we could take action and have a very powerful effect,” said Dale Kunkel, a University of Arizona communications professor who studies the effect of advertising on children.
In 2009, Congress approved a Harkin-sponsored measure to set up an interagency working group to write voluntary nutrition standards for products advertised to children.
The White House monitored the group’s progress, said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a brother of then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and a physician who helped develop the Let’s Move! campaign. “A number of us at the White House were obviously interested in this,” he said.
So were the food and media industries. General Mills Chief Executive Kendall J. Powell met with White House officials, including senior advisor Valerie Jarrett. In a letter to the White House in September 2010, he argued that no evidence linked obesity to ads.
Powell suggested the working group should “be put on hold” while food companies improved the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory effort they set up in 2006.
The working group released draft guidelines in April 2011, acknowledging that its voluntary standards were ambitious: Foods advertised to children should have minimal levels of sugar, salt and fat, and make a “meaningful contribution” to diets by containing nutrients, they said.
The group proposed that its standards apply to all ads aimed at children 17 and younger. “A large percentage” of products advertised to children would not meet the guidelines, the panel noted, suggesting the standards be phased in over at least five years.
Public health groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics embraced the guidelines, but food manufacturers, media companies and trade associations mounted a furious pushback.
“This was just such a dramatic overreach,” said Louis Finkel, the top lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. “There would have been thousands of products swept into this.”
Top food and media corporations hired the firm of former White House communications director Anita Dunn to develop a public relations campaign. Dunn said she did not contact the White House on the issue, noting that federal ethics rules barred her from such communications at the time. About 30 companies flooded Capitol Hill with lobbyists, spending four times as much in 2011 as they had the year before.
“It was probably the most opposition I’ve ever seen mounted against any nutrition policy I’ve worked on in 20 years,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group pushing for the guidelines.
The lobbying included a July 2011 meeting at the White House, again with Jarrett, which included General Mills’ Powell and top executives from Nestle, Kellogg, Disney, Time Warner and Viacom, the parent company of the Nickelodeon network. The companies all supported the first lady’s anti-obesity initiative.
Jarrett declined to comment. A General Mills spokeswoman said Powell did not discuss the company’s participation in Obama’s effort at the meetings.
Two days later, top food manufacturers rolled out a more rigorous version of their self-regulatory effort. The companies pledged to follow a single nutrition standard that limits the levels of sugar, salt and fat in products targeted at children.
The group, which now comprises 17 companies, gave itself until the end of this year to make the changes.
Elaine Kolish, a former Federal Trade Commission official who directs the effort, said about one-third of the products those companies market to children have to be reformulated. “They’re on track,” she said.
The industry’s actions could significantly improve the nutritional value of food marketed to children, but still allows many products to be fortified with vitamins, rather than use ingredients that naturally provide nutrients, experts said.
It also does not limit appeals in sponsorships of after-school events or on product packages, as the working group guidelines had proposed. And it applies only to foods advertised on programs for which at least 35% of viewers are under 12.
A study by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that half the food and drink ads seen by children in 2011 were not covered by the pledge because they aired on shows with broader demographics, such as “Family Guy.”
A week after the chief executives’ July 2011 meeting with Jarrett, their chief lobbyists were invited to the White House to attend an event with the first lady, who announced a commitment from Wal-Mart and other companies to open new stores in neighborhoods that lack full-scale grocers, so-called food deserts.
Obama promoted Nickelodeon’s “Worldwide Day of Play” that September at an event hosted by the network. Nickelodeon — which licenses SpongeBob SquarePants to market Popsicles — in 2011 aired a quarter of food ads viewed by children ages 2 to 11, according to the Yale Rudd Center. The network recently rebuffed a request by four Democratic senators to set stricter nutrition standards for the products advertised.
In November 2011, Obama spoke at the inaugural summit of the Partnership for a Healthier America, praising food manufacturers for cutting sugar, salt and fat from their products. She did not mention marketing.
“The first lady was completely disengaged,” said Wootan, who has advised the Partnership. “It was disappointing.”
The working group proposed concessions to industry, but in December the guidelines were effectively killed when Congress required a cost-benefit analysis that officials said was too onerous to perform.
Harkin said he tried to rally administration support. “It was always, ‘We’re looking at it, we’ll see what we can do. The industry, you know, is working with us, and they have their own little deal that they came up with,’” the senator said. “It became clear to me that they just weren’t going to do it.”
Dr. William Dietz, a member of the working group who recently retired as head of the nutrition division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he believed the White House stayed out of the fight for political reasons.
“The whole work of the interagency working group was going on at the same time that the Partnership for a Healthier America was building relationships with industry,” he said. “I suspect those two things were a bit at odds with one another.”
White House officials pointed the finger at lawmakers. “We were very disappointed when Congress granted the food industry’s request and placed new demands on the working group,” Kass said.
Still, the first lady has continued to share the stage with companies that worked to kill the guidelines.
Last year, she appeared with Walt Disney Co.'s CEO and teamed up with Nickelodeon for an event at the Olympics.
This February, she promoted a new effort to increase exercise in schools, an initiative backed in part by $10 million from the General Mills Foundation. The company makes some of the cereals most heavily advertised to children, including Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Lucky Charms, as well as gummy snacks branded with the preschool character Dora the Explorer.
At a summit in March, Obama returned to her tough talk on ads that target children. “Our kids are surrounded by food advertisements on TV and the Internet, on billboards and in stores, and even in their schools,” she said.
With leaders of major food, beverage and media companies in the audience, Obama didn’t single out any for criticism. But she did praise by name those that had “stepped up to set new standards for responsible marketing.”
“While we’re seeing some progress,” the first lady said, “we know that we still have a lot of work to do.”