Michelle Obama targets cartoon characters in junk food ads

Michelle Obama on Wednesday urged businesses not to allow their cartoon characters to be used to market unhealthy food to kids, saying firms can make money encouraging kids to eat well.

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"The fact is that marketing nutritious foods to our kids isn't just good for our kids' health, it can be good for a company's bottom line," she said Wednesday at a White House conference on marketing.

The first lady was addressing a group of food companies, media companies and other groups to talk about marketing healthy foods to children. A full list of participants was not released by the White House.

The event was part of Obama's anti-obesity Let's Move! program and follows her most recent campaign to get people to drink more water.

The food industry spends $1.8 billion per year on marketing targeted to young people, according to a study from the Rudd Center at Yale University. And most of those ads are for unhealthy foods that are high in sugar, salt, fat and calories.

Kids see about 13 food commercials every day, the study found, which has a "direct and powerful impact on young people's food preferences."

Obama told the assembled crowd that healthy eating can be a profitable enterprise.

"I'm confident that you can market healthy foods to kids and stay competitive and marketable," she said.

She pointed out that Birds Eye used the cast of the hit teen Nickelodeon show "iCarly" to encourage children to eat more vegetables and saw a 20 percent jump in sales.

The Vidalia Onion Committee used Shrek's image and also saw an increase, she said.

The first lady also urged media companies not to license their famous characters — who are often used in ads to appeal to kids — to promote unhealthy foods.

She praised Walt Disney Co. for using its characters to promote healthy eating and for limiting unhealthy food ads on its television channel.

The goal, she said, was to for "kids to actually start pestering us for those foods in the grocery."

Obama was quick to emphasis children should still have treats, however.

"I'm not asking anyone to take the fun out of childhood," she said, pointing out to the companies that healthy eating was becoming the norm for kids.

She also noted that companies are losing billions of dollars every year to obesity-related health costs.

"Meeting these goals isn't just the right decision for the short or medium term, it can affect your business for years to come," she said.

"I know you may have to take a short-term risk to get a long-term payoff," she said. "Remember it wasn't that long ago that going green or taking your business online were considered risky endeavors."

She also warned the companies the issue wouldn't go away after she left the White House.

"There's a few thinking in a few years this lady is gonna be gone," she said to laughter, adding "it's not going to go away three and a half years from now when I'm no longer first lady."