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How the First Lady’s latest “move” affects restaurants

Are you using cartoon characters to market not-so-healthy meals to kids? The First Lady would like you to stop.

At the first-ever White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children, hosted by Michelle Obama on Sept. 18, leaders in the food industry and media gathered to discuss opportunities for marketing that support the health of children and their families, the latest step in the First Lady’s anti-obesity Let’s Move! program.

Rather than using the arm-twisting threat of government-imposed regulation, Mrs. Obama is looking to promote voluntary efforts on the part of leading restaurateurs, food manufacturers, packaged goods companies and television networks. Restaurant participants at the one-day conference included Subway, Burger King, McDonald’s and Taco Bell.

On the agenda were discussions about national advertising campaigns on children’s television networks, such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney as well as the use of licensed characters to drive eating habits.

“The First Lady very clearly asked restaurants and other companies to do better,” says Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group. “She praised the progress they had made in marketing unhealthy food, but called on them to do more. And to do it faster.”

Advertising under fire. The meeting put the spotlight on the problem of advertising unhealthy foods to young audiences. As of 2012, Wootan says, 70 percent of the ads on Nickelodeon, for example, marketed unhealthy foods.

During her remarks, Mrs. Obama praised Disney for its decision to ban, as of 2015, junk food advertising during kids programs broadcast on its television channels and radio station or shown on its websites. This follows Disney’s healthy food initiative at its Anaheim, Calif. and Orlando theme parks.

Use of characters sited. The use of licensed characters to drive eating habits among the under 12 set drew a lot of scrutiny at the meeting, says Scott DeFife, a key political strategist for the National Restaurant Association and a conference attendee.

Numerous studies demonstrate that young children believe foods associated with a popular movie or TV character taste better—the reason why these characters are used to sell the products.

Mrs. Obama commended Birds Eye for turning that idea on its head by using popular characters from the Nickelodeon show iCarly to encourage children to eat vegetables—resulting in a 20 percent sales bump.

Do better. There also was a call to action for the food industry to take a proactive stance and voluntarily incorporate more fruit and vegetables and water options in their offerings to children, consistent with the guidelines of MyPlate, the federal government’s healthy eating program.

“Kids meals at restaurants are synonymous with junk food,” says Wootan. “Hamburgers, chicken nuggets, pizza, with fries and a soda—it enculturates children to think of eating out as a junk food experience, cultivating bad eating habits for a lifetime.”

Good for business. One of Mrs. Obama’s salient points was that promoting healthier fare helps—not hinders—the bottom line. “There is strong acknowledgement by the first lady and her team that voluntary measures and self-regulatory constraints can work,” says DeFife.

Action steps. Even if Mrs. Obama hadn’t called attention to this issue, it would still be in front of the industry due to advocacy groups, says DeFife.

“The NRA is very much engaged in this effort to represent the restaurant industry. But the restaurant community needs to be aware that nutrition advocates are constantly working on strategies and tactics to get consumers on their side,” says DeFife. The NRA meets regularly with advocacy groups and policymakers to ensure all involved understand the impact that any new laws have on restaurants.

DeFife recommends that operators have a conversation with their corporate communication people and see if there are any plans being developed at the national level. While most individual operators won’t have to worry about government involvement in this issue, operators in certain metropolitan areas (on the West Coast and in New York City especially) might not be so lucky.

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