Children’s food advertising is no longer on the Obama policy agenda but the administration is still actively engaged on the issue, as last month’s event at the White House demonstrates.

Given the trouble President Obama is currently having pushing through his landmark healthcare legislation, there may be those in the administration who are secretly glad that plans to introduce legislation around child-directed food advertising foundered some time ago.

Advocates of self-regulation and voluntary corporate action will point to the current impasse on Capitol Hill as further evidence that self-regulation is quicker and more responsive than legislation. They will also argue that self-regulation is more effective – a less tenuous position perhaps.

In fact, the legislation being worked on by the Interagency Working Group (IWG) convened by the administration during the first term would have involved the imposition of voluntary guidelines on which foods can be marketed to children. However, while they were voluntary the food industry was alarmed by the strict nutritional standards being mooted and of course a government mandated ‘voluntary’ standard is a rather different beast from an industry one. This prompted a huge amount of industry lobbying and a significant development of the industry’s own standards under the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).

However, tackling childhood obesity was – like Obamacare – a flagship priority for the administration and an event last month at the White House, hosted by the First Lady under the auspices of her Let’s Move campaign, showed that the administration is still actively engaged on the issue of children’s food advertising.

The White House Convening On Food Marketing To Children brought together 100 guests from the food and media industries, the NGO community, academe, parent groups and government agencies.

The White House said the event was designed “to create a constructive dialogue and collaborative process for developing real solutions that support families in making healthier choices, including leveraging the power of marketing to promote healthy products and decreasing the marketing of unhealthy products to kids”.

Mrs Obama pointed to a “cultural shift” in the US, “a transformation in how we live and eat that many of us could never have imagined even just a few years ago”. For the first time in decades, she continued, “we’re actually starting to move the needle” on obesity. Between 2008 and 2011, obesity rates among low-income preschoolers dropped in 19 states and territories across the US.

Childhood obesity rates are falling in cities such as New York and Philadelphia and in states like California and Mississippi.

While praising food companies for manufacturing healthier children’s foods, the First Lady described this as a “first step”. At this event, it was commercial communication to children that was under the spotlight.

“When the average child is now spending nearly eight hours a day in front of some kind of screen, many of their opinions and preferences are being shaped by the marketing campaigns you all create,” Mrs Obama said. “And that’s where the problem comes in. You see, the average child watches thousands of food advertisements each year, and 86% of these ads are for products loaded with sugar, fat, salt. By contrast, our kids see an average of just one ad a week for healthy products like water to fruits and vegetables. Just one ad a week.”

Mrs Obama paid tribute to the framing of new nutritional standards by the CFBAI and invited the director of that programme, Elaine Kolish, to speak at the event.

“These new standards are beginning to have an impact and I commend all of these companies for taking action,” Mrs Obama said. However, she called for companies not just to limit marketing of unhealthy foods but actively promote healthier options to children.

The First Lady also called on media companies to “do your part as well”, for example by limiting the use of licensed characters to market unhealthy food to children and limiting unhealthy food ads in programming.

The encouraging statistics on obesity notwithstanding, Mrs Obama said that when one child in three is still on track to develop diabetes, and when diet has now surpassed smoking as the number one risk factor for disease and death, “we clearly have much more work to do”.

She continued: “I’m here today with one simple request — and that is to do even more and move even faster to market responsibly to our kids.”

Industry advocates would prefer to characterise improvements in self-regulation as proactive rather than reactive, but it is clear that the prospect of government action acted as a spur to the industry to improve standards. Progress will continue but at what pace?

The CFBAI added an 18th participant company last month, with Ferrero joining the group. Elaine Kolish also reported at the event last month that the Cartoon Network would be aligning its nutritional standards with CFBAI criteria.

The First Lady’s speech was extremely positive in tone but perhaps her most pointed remarks were directed at media companies. She praised Disney for taking the lead last year on limiting the use of licensed characters to market unhealthy food and limiting unhealthy food ads in programming, adding: “I know that other media companies can follow suit.”

Representatives from Nickelodeon may have been shifting uneasily on their plush velvet seats but will a slightly pointed remark from the otherwise honeyed tongue of an extremely popular First Lady be enough to prompt significant action?

Given the First Amendment issues involved, enacting legislation on advertising was always going to be a tough prospect but the industry took the threat posed by the Interagency Working Group very seriously and the carrot and stick approach paid dividends for the administration. Now, it is arguably left only with the ‘carrot’ part of that equation in the form of association with the First Lady’s campaign.

Regarding how further incremental change may be brought about, the First Lady had some very interesting words for representatives from the NGO and academic communities.

“While I know I’ve been talking a lot about corporate America’s responsibilities on this issue, the advocates and experts here today have an important responsibility too”, she said. “Your words matter. You all can help either provide incentives to change, or you can be barriers to change. So we need you to be constructive in your criticisms and strategic in your calls to action, because when it comes to marketing, it can be hard for companies to take risks. They face pressures from Wall Street.

There are also limits to how fast they can move and how far they can go before they start losing customers.

“So when companies do step up and take risks, we need to be supportive, even if we think they haven’t gone far enough. We need to help them make those risks pay off, so that they’ll go even farther, and so that other companies will follow their lead.”

Describing the gathered audience as coming from “some of the most visionary, pioneering ompanies and organisations in this country”, it is hard not to conclude that Mrs Obama is pinning hopes of continued progress on further voluntary, proactive engagement by companies. Only time will tell whether such an outlook is realistic.