In the late 1990s, tobacco companies began a series of initiatives designed to clean up their image with the public. Those didn't work, but a new study suggests that soda companies such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola have learned from big tobacco's mistakes, and new "corporate social responsibility" initiatives from both companies have garnered them unprecedented public favor.
The problem? Those initiatives—including the Pepsi Refresh Project and Coca-Cola's Live Positively campaign—may be harming public health, according to the editorial, published Tuesday in the journal PLoS Medicine.
"It's a diversion tactic because they're pushing the health consequences of their products onto their customers," says Andrew Cheyne, of the University of California-Berkeley's Media Studies Group. "It puts the onus on individuals to make healthy decisions while ignoring the role of the products they sell."
Coca-Cola's Live Positively website features videos and information about soda nutrition, artificial sweeteners, exercise, and healthier options. It also has a philanthropy arm that supports community exercise initiatives and refurbishes parks. The Pepsi Refresh Project, launched in lieu of a 2010 Super Bowl Ad, awarded more than $20 million in grants to nonprofits and businesses that the public deemed worthy through a voting process. People who drank certain Pepsi products earned extra "power votes."
Cheyne and coauthor Lissy Friedman, of Boston's Public Health Advocacy Institute, say these outreach programs are really just marketing campaigns disguised as corporate philanthropy. They also market to children. Philip Morris caught wide backlash from parents and, eventually, the government, when it distributed thousands of book covers to middle school kids with the company logo and the slogan "Tobacco Is Whacko If You're a Teen."
"They were ham-handed about it," Friedman says of Philip Morris. "They talked about smoking as if it was a forbidden fruit—and if you want to appeal to a child, you tell them that this is an adult activity. There's not the same stigma to soda as there is to tobacco."
The American Beverage Association, whose leaders include executives from Pepsi and Cocal Cola, said as much in a press release responding to the PLoS editorial.
"The fact remains that the beverage industry is nothing like tobacco. Our products are not even in the same universe as tobacco. Smoking kills. Soda doesn't," the organization wrote. "[Soda] can be enjoyed as part of a balanced, active, and healthy lifestyle."
To that, the authors note that obesity complications are the fifth-leading cause of death worldwide.
"The public health case against soda is rock solid," says Cheyne. Previous studies have shown that soda and other sweetened drinks accounted for about one fifth of Americans' weight gains between 1977 and 2007, and children are estimated to get about 13 percent of all their calories from sugary drinks.
Soda companies admit these outreach efforts are wildly successful. The Pepsi Refresh Project's funding comes directly from the company's marketing budget, and officials from the company have said the goal of the project is to increase long-term sales.
"The tobacco industry was playing more of a defensive role with their social campaigns to improve their public standing and prevent regulation," Cheyne says. "We found the soda industry had the same intentions, but they went further and used [these campaigns] as marketing."
In November, Melisa Tezanos, communications director of PepsiCo Americas Beverages, told USA Today as much.