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Soda industry borrows from Big Tobacco playbook with ‘feel-good’ campaigns

The companies have launched social responsibility campaigns to improve their image and forestall regulation and taxes on their sugary drinks.

Coming to the Coke vs. Pepsi rivalry: feel-good social responsibility campaigns.

The major soda companies have launched corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns around the world to improve their public image and forestall government regulation and taxes on their sugary drinks, according to a paper published last week in the journal PLoS Medicine.  

The campaigns — which include the “Pepsi Refresh Project” by PepsiCo and “Live Positively” by Coca-Cola — are remarkably similar to those instigated by Big Tobacco during the 1990s, when it, too, found itself the target of tighter state and federal regulations.

Only this time, these public-relations-campaigns-posing-as-philanthropic-initiatives have been met with much less scrutiny or resistance from the public and from health officials, the authors of the PLoS paper note.

In other words, the campaigns are working.

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Meanwhile, as the paper’s authors (who are media and public health experts) also point out, the world’s population — in developing and developed countries alike — keeps getting fatter. The health implications of this trend are enormous (no pun intended). Obesity is now the fifth-leading cause of death worldwide, and childhood obesity has been identified as “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century,” according to the World Health Organization.

“Sugary-sweetened beverage consumption has helped fuel this crisis,” the authors write, “…these drinks have contributed an estimated one-fifth of the weight gain in the U.S. population from 1977 to 2007.”

Marketing, not philanthropy

The $20 million Pepsi Refresh Project encourages individuals — particularly the coveted under-30 demographic — to vote for philanthropic projects, which PepsiCo then donates money to. (You can get 100 extra votes to cast when you buy specially marked beverages.)

But don’t let those donations fool you. As Shiv Singh, a marketing officer for the Pepsi Refresh Project has acknowledged, the campaign is “not a traditional nonprofit corporate philanthropy effort that we just go write checks. It’s putting the DNA of doing and feeling good at the core of a brand marketing effort.” Indeed, the project was funded not with “corporate philanthropy dollars,” says Singh, but with “brand marketing dollars, because we believed fundamentally and still do that, you know, by doing good in a way that’s aligned with our Pepsi brand values, you know, we can help the bottom line.”

Such efforts not only build brand loyalty, however. They also help recruit community groups “who publicly praise the company and may be recruited to help oppose future regulatory initiatives,” the PLoS paper points out. Soda companies, like Big Tobacco before them, have even formed a front group, Americans Against Food Taxes, to make it seem as if there’s a grass-roots effort against taxing beverages. [Note: The Americans Against Food Taxes domain appears to have expired, so the organization may not still be in existence.]

Denying soda’s role

Coca-Cola’s Live Positively campaign also supports charitable projects, including college scholarships and “Spark Your Park” efforts to refurbish basketball courts and school athletic fields in low-income neighborhoods. But Live Positively includes efforts to educate consumers on nutrition as well. This part of the campaign is clearly aimed at downplaying (in fact, denying) soda’s role in the obesity epidemic. It tries to keep the emphasis on physical activity (how people just don’t get enough) rather than on unhealthful foods and drinks. 

It’s an approach eerily reminiscent of Big Tobacco’s CSR campaigns, as the authors of the PLoS paper explain:

By highlighting the importance of consumers making healthy choices instead of the companies’ roles in creating an unhealthy environment, soda company and tobacco industry CSR campaigns emphasize personal, instead of corporate, responsibility. For instance, the tobacco industry’s “youth smoking prevention” programs appeared to combat youth smoking, but instead placed responsibility on parents and children for the decision to smoke. Similarly, in its “Balanced Living” message on Live Positively, Coca-Cola suggests that the company is responsible only for providing health information to consumers, such as through the “Clear on Calories” labels that show calorie counts on the front of bottles or cans. The company suggests that health is ultimately up to consumers because with new labels, “you’ll know exactly how many calories are in a beverage before making a purchase, whether at a store, one of our vending machines or fountain machines, making it easier for you to make informed choices and live a healthy, active lifestyle.”

Unlike Big Tobacco’s CSR campaigns, however, those devised by the soda companies are openly aimed at young people. The campaigns “target youth in schools or community centers,” write the PLoS authors. “The use of cause marketing and new media facilitates the companies’ connect to youth. … Moreover, CRS campaigns provide a mechanism for soda companies to circumvent pledges not to market in schools. While soda companies agreed to remove full-calorie drinks from U.S. schools, CSR programs like the Refresh Project keep the brand in front of young people with promises of grants for children’s schools, parks, or other programs.”

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Health advocates need to be vigilant

The authors of the PLoS paper conclude by urging public health advocates to launch their own campaigns to educate the public and policymakers about the significant (and costly) role that sugary beverages play in the current obesity epidemic.

“Public health advocates must continue to monitor the CSR activities of soda companies,” they write, “and remind the public and policymakers that, similar to Big Tobacco, soda industry CSR aims to position the companies, and their products, as socially acceptable rather than contributing to a social ill.”

PLoS Medicine is an open-access journal, so you can read the entire paper at its website. The paper is part of a provocative series of articles on the role in health of Big Food (defined by the magazine’s editors as “the multinational food and beverage industry with huge and concentrated market power”) that is running through the rest of this month.