Sugary drinks have been a huge contributor to the rise in obesity over the last 30 years. Yet soda companies will say and do almost anything to avoid acknowledging that their products are harmful or that they aggressively market them to children and youth. Instead, soda companies shift the blame to their own customers, particularly parents. Soda makers acknowledge obesity is a problem but do everything they can to distract the public -- and policymakers -- from their role. They invest millions in trying to portray themselves as part of the solution. Here is a snapshot of some of their most salient tactics.
What They're Saying
Soda makers say obesity is complicated
"While beverages and food play a role in determining good health, so do other important factors. In fact, it is generally accepted that obesity involves three main factors: genetics, diet and exercise. We know that obesity is a serious and complex problem that is best addressed by living a balanced lifestyle -- consuming a variety of foods and beverages in moderation and getting plenty of exercise. Quite simply, overweight and obesity are a result of an imbalance between calories consumed and calories burned."1 -- American Beverage Association
So they can argue that doing something about beverages won't help: "[T]here is no silver bullet that will eliminate obesity – no one food we can eliminate, no one pill we can take, no one law or regulation we can pass. And no one company can solve this challenge alone."2 -- Indra Nooyi, CEO, Pepsi Co
But it will. When one category of food and drink accounts for 43% of the rise in obesity, then reducing consumption of that category will make a big difference.3
Soda companies say people need to take more responsibility for what they eat and drink
"Obesity is a serious problem. We know that. And we agree that Americans need to be more active and take greater responsibility for their diets."4 -- Muhtar Kent, CEO, Coca-Cola
So they advocate for education: "As with most public health challenges, more and better consumer education is the answer."5 -- Sean McBride, National Soft Drink Association
But education won't solve the problem if the environment is saturated with sugary beverages.
The beverage companies say parents should be more responsible for what their kids eat and drink
This argument, possibly the beverage industry's most powerful and pervasive, is often unspoken but implicit in its work. Soda companies have so successfully deflected blame for the harm their products cause that they don't even have to make this argument themselves. Their customers and the media regularly make it for them.
"Last time I checked I couldn't find anything in the US Constitution which gave the US Congress the right to legislate behavior through taxes and the tax code. … It's the parents' decision when it comes to what beverages their children consume not the govts ever." --Reader comment in response to article "USDA says soda tax would cut obesity" 6
Parents don't stand a chance against the relentless marketing from soda companies. They can't monitor every text on a cell phone or every website visited, and they don't control what's stocked on store shelves or in vending machines. If the beverage companies really cared, they'd do what they could to make parents' jobs easier, not harder.
Soda companies claim that taxing soda hurts poor families
"A tax on juice drinks and soda would further squeeze hard-working families already struggling to pay their bills and keep their health coverage. With the economic downturn, there could not be a worse time to ask them to pay more for the simple pleasures they enjoy. We all want to improve health care, but taxes don't make anyone healthy. Education, exercise and balanced diets do that." -- Susan Neely, president and CEO, American Beverage Association7
But obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental disease hurt poor families more.
Soda companies claim that regulating beverages is a slippery slope and will lead to other restrictions
"If [public health advocates] prevail...governments are likely to: enact laws that would allow a waiter to decide if a patron could have dessert, much like a bartender can decide whether to pour a customer another drink. Just as cigar bars were banned in California...ice cream parlors could get the ax. The next thing you know, there will be scales in restaurants, and customers will be served or denied certain foods based on weight.” -- Center for Consumer Freedom, beverage industry front group8
This is just fear and exaggeration. Regulating soda is perfectly reasonable, considering the contribution it makes to obesity.
Soda companies want you to believe that soda is a simple pleasure
"Some want to demonize us because our products have calories. They say no one should enjoy the simple pleasure of a Coca-Cola. They say we have no role in finding solutions. They shout at lawmakers: 'Blame soft drinks! Tax soft drinks and you'll not only raise revenues, you'll lower obesity rates!'" -- Sandy Douglas, President, Coca-Cola North America9
"Coca-Cola has always been dedicated to expressing the refreshingly positive message that even when life feels difficult and stressful, there are still moments throughout the day that are perfect opportunities to 'Open Happiness' and refresh yourself with life's simple pleasures." -- Alexis Sacre, President, Coca-Cola Middle East10
If soda were an occasional treat, there might be no need for this website. But it's not, and the beverage companies are doing everything they can to see that every American continues to drink at least 45 gallons or more each year.
What They're Doing
Casting themselves as "good corporate citizens"
Soda companies frequently try to downplay their profit motive and portray themselves as part of the solution to the obesity epidemic. In many cases, highlighting these "good deeds" then becomes a marketing opportunity to deflect attention from their not-so-good deeds.
In January 2013, in advance of the NFL Super Bowl, Coca-Cola announced it would air commercials touting their "anti-obesity" efforts on cable news networks.
In 2013, major soda makers, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, will start displaying calorie counts on vending machines and claim they will encourage consumers to make lower-calorie choices. The beverage industry initiative, called the Calories Count Vending program, will launch first in municipal buildings in Chicago and San Antonio where government employees are participating in a “wellness challenge” to see who can make greater improvements in their health (as measured by factors like weight loss and lower blood pressure). The winning city will receive a $5 million grant from the American Beverage Association. The new vending machine labels will encourage consumers to “Check Then Choose” or “Try a Low-Calorie Beverage.” Calorie counts will also be inserted on buttons. The plan falls in line with the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that vending machines and restaurant chains with more than 20 locations display calorie information. In September of 2012, McDonald’s also started printing calorie counts on its menus nationwide in advance of the new labeling requirements, which aren’t expected to take effect until the end of 2013.
In May 2006 when major beverage companies, including Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, and Cadbury-Schweppes, declared that by 2009 they would no longer sell sodas in the nation's elementary and middle schools, they also announced a ten million dollar advertising campaign to herald their new policy which emphasized the healthy drinks schools sell, like milk and water.
- A national survey conducted in 2006 showed that being socially and environmentally responsible is particularly important among the Millennial generation, 89% of whom said they would be likely to switch brands if the second brand were associated with a good cause.11 Soda companies know this all too well and have taken on cause marketing full throttle. For example, the Pepsi Refresh Project -- a type of "cause marketing" by which for-profit companies tie their products to charitable causes or non-profit organizations -- provides grants ranging from $5,000 to $250,000 to people and organizations that submit winning plans for creating positive change in categories such as Health, Education and The Planet.12 Not to be outdone, Coca-Cola, on top of its sixty-five-year partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of America and one million dollar Red Cross donation for relief efforts in Haiti, launched a "Live Positively" campaign, which invites people to "help make good things happen" through various projects from climate change to nutrition.13 Coca-Cola's holiday 2011 ArcticHome campaign is the latest of such promotions.14
Creating innocence by association
Corporations have a long history of claiming innocence in their role in public health problems and diffusing criticism by associating with groups that work for the public good. This is a long-standing tactic of tobacco companies and now soda companies are doing it too.
One example comes from Coca-Cola’s various partnerships with the American Dietetic Association (ADA), the major group representing professional dieticians. Through their Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness, Coca-Cola offers continuing education for health professionals, which are approved by the American Dietetic Association.15 The ADA is also listed as a partner for Coca-Cola’s product Diet Coke; as a partner, the ADA and Diet Coke collaborate to bring the public ideas for eating well to live well.16 What’s more, both Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co. are sponsors of the ADA.17
By working with the ADA, companies like Coke and Pepsi can show that they are partners in trying to solve this public health problem. Such voluntary partnerships may pre-empt policy changes the public health community seeks but the food and beverage companies want to avoid.
Attacking their critics
Soda companies are sensitive to criticism. They work hard to keep a positive image of themselves in the minds of the public, to sell products, and in the minds of lawmakers, to maintain a favorable policy environment. So, rather than engage in a fight with a critic directly, many companies form trade associations to take the heat -- and dish it out -- for them.
One of these groups is the American Beverage Association, formerly the National Soft Drink Association; another is The Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization founded by food and beverage industry lobbyist Richard Berman with $500,000 from tobacco giant Philip Morris. The Center for Consumer Freedom works to discredit scientists and organizations working to protect the public's health. Among the favored targets of the Center for Consumer Freedom are Professors Marion Nestle and Kelly Brownell and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). By using front groups, food industry organizations make it seem like there is "grass roots" public opposition to things like restricting beverage marketing to kids, rather than a well-funded corporate campaign to smear public health advocates.18
Aggressively marketing their products
Soda companies are part of a seventy-two billion dollar industry19 which spends millions each year on sophisticated marketing efforts designed to target youth and saturate low-income communities and communities of color. In fact, in 2006 alone, soda companies spent nearly $600 million advertising to children under eighteen.20 Of that, twenty-one million dollars went toward advertising in new media such as websites, viral videos and other content popular with youth. And Coca-Cola pays thirty-five million dollars to sponsor American Idol,21 one of the most popular show on American television, which is viewed by more young children than SpongeBob Squarepants.22
Soda companies also appropriate strong, positive cultural symbols and icons to target racial and ethnic groups. For example, in July of 2008, Pepsi launched its Sierra Mist campaign, using Latino themes to create advertisements. To target African-Americans, Coca-Cola announced partnerships in 2007 and 2008 with popular hip-hop artists, Jay-Z and Big Boi, for re-launching Cherry Coke and Full Throttle Fury brands.
Aggressively lobbying to kill soda taxes
Public health advocates have been pushing hard for a soda tax, and if its lobbying expenditures are any indication, the soda industry is feeling the pressure. The food and beverage industry more than doubled the amount it spent on lobbying from 2008 to 2009, with the bulk of the increase coming from the American Beverage Association. The ABA spent nineteen million dollars on lobbying in 2009, up from $700,000. During the same time period, PepsiCo increased its lobbying from $1.1 to $9.2 million; Coca-Cola went from $2.5 to almost $9.4 million.21
In 2010, soda lobbyists threw a bribe at Philadelphia, which was considering a 2-cents-an-ounce tax on all sugar-sweetened beverages to help close a budget gap: Kill the tax and we’ll give ten million dollars to the Philly-based Pew Charitable Trusts to fund health and wellness programs. The Philadelphia city council didn't accept the cash, but it did quash the tax, making up its budget shortfall with increased taxes on property and tobacco instead.22 The industry then donated the ten million dollars to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, which in turn offered it to the city to fund anti-obesity programs in city health centers. Mayor Nutter's administration turned down the offer when it discovered that the funds came from an American Beverage Association fund. 23
1. "Many factors impact obesity." American Beverage Association. http://www.ameribev.org/nutrition--science/obesity/. Accessed January 30, 2012.
2. “Balancing ‘Calories In’ with ‘Calories Out’: How Companies can Help Customers and Employees Fight Obesity.” F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future. pages 44-45. Trust for America’s Health. http://healthyamericans.org/reports/obesity2010/Obesity2010Report.pdf. Accessed January 30, 2012.
3. Woodward-Lopez G, Kao J, Ritchie L. To what extent have sweetened beverages contributed to the obesity epidemic? Public Health Nutrition. 2011; 14(3):499-509.
4. Coke Didn’t Make America Fat. Oct. 7, 2009. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870329800457445546412058169.... Accessed January 30, 2012.
5. Sean McBride, Director of Communications for the National Soft Drink Association, in "Are Soft Drinks Responsible for the Obesity Epidemic?" Beverage World, November 15, 2003, page 23.
6. Reader comment from USDA says soda tax would cut obesity. July 8, 2010. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/all-we-can-eat/food-politics/usda-says-.... Accessed January 30, 2012.
7. Soda Makers Begin Ad Campaign Opposing Soft Drink Tax. Aug. 18, 2009. http://www.csnews.com/top-story-soda_makers_begin_ad_campaign_opposing_s.... Accessed January 30, 2012.
8. "The War on Personal Responsibility." Center for Consumer Freedom. May 3, 2004. http://www.consumerfreedom.com/news_detail.cfm/h/2489-the-war-on-persona.... Accessed January 30, 2012.
9. Pro & Con: Is a soda tax a good policy to reduce obesity in the U.S. April 5, 2010. AJC. http://www.ajc.com/opinion/pro-con-is-a-438123.html. Accessed January 30, 2012.
10. 'Open Happiness' and enjoy life's simple pleasures with Coca-Cola. May 30, 2009. http://www.ameinfo.com/198521.html. Accessed January 30, 2012.
11. Cone 2006 Millennial Case Study. Cause Marketing Forum. http://www.coneinc.com/news/request.php?id=1090. Accessed January 30, 2012.
12. Pepsi Refresh Project. http://www.refresheverything.com/index. Accessed January 30, 2012.
13. Coca-Cola Live Positively campaign. http://www.livepositively.com/default.aspx?section=home&lang=&AspxAutoDe.... Accessed January 30, 2012.
14. Coca-Cola ArcticHome campaign. https://www.arctichome.com/web/index.html. Accessed January 28, 2012.
15. Berkeley Media Studies Group. Strategic Alliance. Reading Between the Lines: Understanding Food Industry Responses to Concerns About Nutrition. March 2007. http://www.bmsg.org/documents/FramingBriefIndustryResponse_000.pdf. Accessed January 30, 2012.
17. Interview with Anne Elliot, vice president of communications for The Nielsen Company, conducted by Hilary Abramson between April and June, 2008.
18. Federal Trade Commission. Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents: A Review of Industry Expenditures, Activities, and Self Regulation. Federal Trade Commission, July 2008.
19. Gunelius, Susan. Ford, Coke & AT&T Pay More to Sponsor American Idol. Brandcurve.com, January 18, 2008. Available at: http://www.brandcurve.com/ford-coke-att-pay-more-to-sponsor-american-idol/, accessed on January 30, 2012.
20. Interview with Anne Elliot, vice president of communications for The Nielsen Company, conducted by Hilary Abramson between April and June, 2008.
21. Food & Beverage: Background. OpenSecrets.org: Center for Responsive Politics. October 2010. http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/background.php?ind=N01++. Accessed January 30, 2012.
22. Soda Tax Upcaps a Fight. Wall Street Journal. May 23, 2010. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870490460457526253029119419.... Accessed January 30, 2012.
23. "City turns down beverage-industry funds from Children's Hospital for anti-obesity program." The Philadelphia Inquirer. September 13, 2011. http://articles.philly.com/2011-09-13/news/30149740_1_antiobesity-progra.... Accessed January 28, 2012.