The crackdown on super-sized sodas appears to be spreading. According to Businessweek, Cambridge, Mass., is now exploring the idea of limiting the portion size of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. This news comes just as several members of New York City’s Board of Health spoke out strongly in favor of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 16-ounce limit for soda sizes.
What will beverage companies will do in response?
Well, let’s just say they’re a group that tends to play hardball. In fact, some public health advocates have compared soda companies’ recent marketing tactics and business strategies, developed in the wake of growing evidence linking sweetened beverage consumption and obesity, to those of tobacco companies. “Taking a page from tobacco’s playbook” is a phrase I’ve seen used more than once.
And while advocates stand by the comparison, there hasn’t been much rigorous analysis behind it to date. Trying to fill that gap, the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Medicine commissioned a series of reports to explore “the activities and influence of the food and beverage industry in the health arena.”
One interesting report from the series looks at the way soda companies participate in so-called “cause marketing” programs. Researchers examined programs like the Pepsi Refresh campaign, Coke’s Live Positively, and Sprite’s Spark Your Park. The goal of these programs is to demonstrate the companies’ roles as responsible corporate citizens who do good deeds—whether through crowdsourced philanthropy, “healthy living” tips, or improved playgrounds. In other words: It’s the warm fuzzy stuff.
As you may know, these efforts are similar to the way Big Tobacco spent its money in past decades. Companies like Philip Morris have a long history of investing in arts and culture to help burnish their images. But in the ’90s, when smoking was finally pushed to the margins and tobacco companies’ tactics came under fire, they pioneered the modern Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) campaign—websites, marketing materials, and ads that were all purportedly designed to teach people how to use their products responsibly. (Or in the case of kids and teens, to teach them how to avoid the products entirely.)
However, “public officials, advocates, teachers, and students opposed these [Big Tobacco] programs, which backfired because they were perceived as cynically employing reverse psychology to encourage youth smoking.”
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