The government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade advertising and marketing food messages, but those messages at times can be contradictory.
Eat your vegetables! Get some exercise! Have some candy! How about a whiskey? All of those messages are being paid for by the same source – your tax dollars.
The U.S. government may spend a lot of money to encourage Americans to eat their vegetables, but it’s also dedicating dollars to persuade foreigners to buy American candy and spirits.
The mixed – perhaps contradictory – messages are a result of diverse federal programs that are spending millions of dollars a year with very different goals. Domestically, the Obama administration has made healthier eating – to fight obesity – a key priority. At the same time, it is trying to help U.S. companies sell their products overseas – even if those products are high in sugar or alcohol.
It's all part of the more than $16 billion the government has spent in the last decade on advertising, marketing and public relations contracts.
Whether it’s a vegetable garden or a multimedia advertising campaign, promoting healthy living has been important to President Barack Obama. As a result, there have been a variety of marketing efforts over the past four years, with multiple federal agencies working to promote messages related to exercise, food and overall health, a review by the Washington Guardian and the Medill News Service found.
The White House’s first push was to put fitness on the national stage. In February 2010, First lady Michelle Obama launched the “Let’s Move” campaign to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic. President Barack Obama simultaneously launched the Task Force on Childhood Obesity to create a government-wide effort to support his wife’s plan.
A key player in the task force is the Department of Health and Human Services. Obama made the department responsible for educating the public to make informed decisions when grocery shopping and while dining out. In September 2010, the agency launched a multimedia campaign totaling more than $9 million to promote healthy lifestyles, reflecting the White House’s obesity prevention efforts.
“Curbing the obesity epidemic requires committed people and organizations across the nation working together to take action,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement when the anti-obesity initiative was announced.
Another agency working to promote healthy eating is the Department of Agriculture. The USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in 2011 launched its “MyPlate” campaign, including the agency’s new plate-shaped icon that replaced the food pyramid.
But at the same time, the department’s Foreign Agricultural Service awards funds each year to U.S. agriculture and food companies to help promote their products overseas – and some of the recipients don’t necessarily align with the administration’s emphasis on healthy foods.
Through its largest program, the Market Access Program, the USDA allocated $200 million in 2012 to food industry groups and associations to help pitch their products overseas.
Among them is the National Confectioners Association, which received $1.3 million to promote sugary foods and candy abroad.
Alcohol companies are also big recipients. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States has received more than $250,000 to promote whiskey and other alcoholic beverages overseas. The Brewers Association was awarded $400,000 in 2012, and the Wine Institute received $6.9 million in 2012, making it one of the largest MAP recipients. Beef sellers also got into the action.
Despite their apparently contradictory nature, the two efforts have borne fruit.
According to Dr. Robert Post, deputy director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the White House’s emphasis on health has helped make USDA’s MyPlate program a success.
“What better spokesperson can you have than the First Lady?” said Post, adding that the MyPlate program was intended to complement Let’s Move and other federal nutrition and wellness communications efforts.
The campaign has cost between $2 million and $2.5 million, Post said, which includes the creation of the new icon and Web site and other promotion efforts. He said the communications efforts have been effective largely due to the level of collaboration among government agencies and the USDA’s partnerships with the private sector.
“It’s a huge departure from our approach in the past,” said Post. “We’ve really stretched an awful lot of dollars and got an awful lot out of it.”
The network of more than 600 partners includes organizations such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Del Monte Foods. They promote MyPlate online and through events and social media. Results have been measured through traditional and social media monitoring as well as consumer surveys.
USDA spokesman Matt Herrick said the program to promote American food sales overseas is intended to help many sectors of the economy.
“We really want to represent America’s farmers and ranchers, and those are raw commodities,” he said. “They demonstrate a full array of the types of food that are produced here in the United States.”
And Herrick said he doesn’t see any evidence for the claim that the government helps promote junk food overseas while pushing a health agenda in the U.S.
Instead, Herrick said, trade organizations representing fruit and vegetable growers and meat producers make up the majority of MAP funding recipients. That’s because the goal of MAP is to help small-to-medium sized companies that wouldn’t otherwise have the resources expand to overseas markets, Herrick said.
Corporations such as Hersey, Nestle and Mars don’t qualify for MAP funding, even though they are part of the National Confectioners Association, according to Susan Smith, the association’s vice president.
“New overseas markets are a daunting and expensive endeavor for small- and medium-sized companies who have seldom ventured to market their products overseas,” said Smith.
But the MAP program has come under some congressional criticism as wasteful.
“The Market Access Program is a case study of federal inefficiency and overlap,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wrote in his June 2012 report on the program.
“At a time when we are cutting funding for our troops, taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the filming of reality TV shows in India, wine tasting for foreign journalists, pet food advertising and even to advertise pet shampoo anymore.”
The Market Access Program is an Agriculture Department program designed to help American food producers market their products to foreign buyers. Since 1999, it provide food trade groups about $2.1 billion for the effort, including $200 million last year.