Healthy Lifestyle Ads From Big Soda: Hypocritical or Helpful?

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For years now, the soda and fast food industry, blamed for rising obesity rates in the U.S., have been battling an image problem. Will promoting healthy lifestyles redeem them?

Social responsibility campaigns are nothing new to corporations — especially those whose actions or products don’t exactly promote admirable or healthy goals (think liquor companies that admonish their consumers to drink responsibly or tobacco companies that fund programs to fight poverty and hunger.) But do these tactics work? Can doing good offset the negative impact that sugared sodas or calorie-dense processed foods, for example, have on the national waistline?

While perusing the slate of studies released this week, I came across research on how healthy eating improves dieters’ self control. It was funded by The Coca-Cola Company. On their face, the results were interesting — seeing, smelling and eating healthy food can reinforce the appeal of these foods and help dieters to lower the number of calories they take in. But should the fact that Coca-Cola sponsored the study color the results in some way? That led me to think about the heavy rotation of ads on television and on billboards I’ve been seeing recently of active people outside, enjoying a Coke or a bag of Lays — which seemed incongruous, if not hypocritical.

Not surprisingly, soda and fast food companies like to depict healthy, vibrant people who are slim and active and enjoying their products.  And in doing so, they are sending the subtle message that if consumers gain weight, it’s not the beverage makers’ fault, for example, but the drinker’s fault for not being more physically active. In 2012, Andrew Cheyne, a researcher at the Berkeley Media Studies Group in California published an editorial in PLoS Medicine arguing that such social responsibility campaigns and advertising are effective ways of diverting and shifting responsibility away from corporations that make sugared beverages. While Pepsi committed $20 million in 2010 to consumer-voted projects such as refurbishing parks and reinvigorating local arts programs, it allowed voters who purchased specially marked cans of soda more voting power. Likewise, a healthy living educational initiative sponsored by Coca-Cola was advertised on smaller-sized containers of its best-selling product.

(MORE: Study: How Soda Companies’ Social Responsibility Campaigns Are Harming Your Health)

“These corporate social responsibility methods shift the emphasis from the product and practices of the industry onto individual consumers themselves,” says Cheyne. “This is important because we know from other industries like Big Tobacco and oil that corporate responsibility tactics like funding campaigns and studies creates the impression they are acting responsibly and there is not a need for government or public intervention.” Take Coke’s  “Together for Good” campaign released this year, which suggests that the company is taking the problem of obesity seriously by making calorie counts visible, using zero-calorie sweeteners and offering smaller-sized servings. Cheyne says a closer look at its message shows, however, that the company is sidestepping its role in producing high-calorie products and focuses instead on how obesity is an individual’s responsibility, resulting from a mismatch between the calories coming in via proper diet, and the calories going out through exercise.

Marion Nestle, a a nutrition professor at New York University and the author of Food Politics, tracks the various obesity-related campaigns Coca-Cola pushes. The company bought full page ads in the New York Times to promote its commitment to fight obesity, but Nestle says its claims fall flat, calling it a publicity ploy. “Coke promises to get people moving, [but] divert[s] attention from the caloric effects of sodas,” she writes.

Industry groups also make some dramatic claims about the positive impact their social responsibility campaigns are having, but when it comes to lowering obesity rates and improving people’s health, Kantha Shelke, a food scientist at Corvus Blue LLC and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) says the evidence is relatively thin. In May, for example, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a national CEO-led organization that aims to reduce obesity in the U.S., announced that its member companies, including Coca Cola, exceeded their stated goal of reducing some 1.5 trillion calories in the marketplace in the US. The Foundation credits offering healthier, lower calorie options with accomplishing this goal, but that doesn’t seem to have translated into a drop in obesity rates, Shelke points out.

“The only way Coke can really help address obesity and poor diets is to sell less soda—the one thing its stockholders will not allow.  And the company is doing everything it can to fight city and state soda taxes, portion size caps, or anything else that might reduce sales,” says Shelke. “In the 200-plus countries where Coca-Cola advertises, it promises to offer low or no-calorie drinks in every market, but the advertising appears to be largely focused on the sugar-laden drinks. They say they will provide transparent nutrition information, listing calories on the front of all packages, but consumers continue to be confused because Coca-Cola declares the nutritional info on a per serving basis, and most people consume the entire can, which is incidentally not re-closeable. Such a move does not seem transparent to me.”

(MORE: The New York City Soda Ban, and a Brief History of Bloomberg’s Nudges)

The beverage industry, however, maintains that it does give consumers all the information they need to make educated and healthy eating choices. The American Beverage Association partnered with former President Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association in 2005 to remove full-calorie soft drinks out of schools and replace them with healthier choices such as water and milk, which has cut the total number of beverage calories available in schools by 90%. They’ve also added calorie labels to drinks and reminder messages on vending machines for consumers to check the calories on their beverage of choice.

Still, the fact remains that soda companies sell a product that is in direct conflict with anti-obesity initiatives. So are their do-good efforts worth doing? Nutrition experts are divided over whether these forays into socially responsible programs, or healthy eating campaigns, are helping people, or whether they simply whitewash the bigger harms the products are generating in the form of obesity and chronic diseases. “There is the group of nutritionists and physicians who prefer to work with, rather than against, the ‘military industrial establishment,’ and embrace all ‘efforts’ by large industry elements to be part of the solution,” says Dr. David Katz, the director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. Keri Gans, a registered dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet, applauds the soda companies for their efforts. “It is a very positive step on their behalf for consumers by educating them on healthy eating. Soda is a choice. The same way a person has a choice to eat fruits and vegetables. Not everyone eats them, even though we know it’s good for us,” she says.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who hold these companies responsible for the obesity epidemic, and find it hard to see any effort on their part to promote healthy messages as anything but hypocritical.

And there are those who see a practical need to make the most of the system we have. “I am something of a centrist,” Katz says of his own view of industry-sponsored ads and campaigns. “I refer to myself as a ‘public health pragmatist.’  I don’t believe we should make perfect the enemy of the good, but I don’t think we should all fawn over lipstick on a pig, either.”

So when it comes to addressing obesity, what should these companies do? “Clearly, they can’t just declare themselves the bad guy and commit ceremonial corporate suicide. So, they either need to acknowledge, or ignore the problem; acknowledging the problem is better,” says Katz. Having the company recognize that it is part of the issue–along with the public’s recognition of the part it plays in choosing to drink their products–can be positive. For example, Shelke says companies like Coca-Cola could have a bigger impact on obesity rates if it educated consumers on how sugar, as an occasional treat, can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Traditionally, corporations would have no reason to play a role in how consumers choose to use their products, but finding more ways of working with the public and with nutritionists about consuming foods and beverages in appropriate amounts could help the food industry  promote better eating habits without jeopardizing their business.

“Soda is a business…[A]nd they have the financial ability to actually help consumers.” says Gans. It’s just a matter of promoting the right messages.

21 comments
AAKDJ
AAKDJ

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laura_schneider
laura_schneider

Personally, I like soda taste but I don't drink soda many time. After reading this post, I'll be more careful in my choice and my drinking as well as eating.


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youthfuladvisor
youthfuladvisor

It’s not surprising that drinking all the sugar in sodas would cause weight gain, but what is surprising is that even diet soda will pack on the pounds: Researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center monitored 475 adults for 10 years, and found that those who drank diet soda had a 70 percent increase in waist circumference over the 10-year study, compared with those who didn’t drink any soda. Those who drank more than two diet sodas per day saw a 500 percent waist expansion! A separate study the same researchers conducted on mice suggested that it was the aspartame, which raised blood glucose levels, that caused the weight gain; when your liver encounters too much glucose, the excess is converted to body fat.


EatHealthy
EatHealthy

Lets be honest, consuming soda before a workout is not helpful, so why drink it at all?    

If they were really going to be part of the solution, these companies would be forced to pay for ads similar to the Don't Smoking Cigarettes ads showing the potential dangers and results from years of use.  Any company that profits from selling damaging products should be legally obligated to disclose the potential side-affects.  

Even with labels and warnings however, if parents are already drinking soda and are setting the example that it is okay, most children will continue down this vicious cycle.  If you don't want your kids to do bad things, don't do them yourself.

Time to take responsibility and realize it is more than just you who is affected by your actions.  Besides, there are WAY better things out their to drink than soda...give me a pineapple juice or a smoothie any day.


aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

So they list the amount of exercise needed to work off the calories of a can of soda, and this makes them "good guys"? No, you're just trying to turn a bug into a feature.

KimGaleazRDN,CD
KimGaleazRDN,CD

Instead of finding fault with companies, I believe it is more effective to applaud their efforts to be part of the solution to obesity by creating these calorie-awareness and get-active initiatives. As a registered dietitian and nutritionist, I’m happy to work with companies like Coca-Cola who are taking responsibility and helping people learn about sensible portions, balancing calories with activity and, yes, even enjoying everything you eat and drink. I’ve long promoted an all-inclusive approach to eating. You can choose potato chips or kale chips, full-calorie soda or zero-calorie soda, but ultimately, being responsible for balancing those choices is up to each of us as individuals.

MaureenBeach
MaureenBeach

As this article notes, the beverage industry has undertaken an array of initiatives to promote healthy, balanced lifestyles. We voluntarily launched theClear On Calories Initiative and Calories Count Vending Program to help consumers make informed choices when selecting a beverage that's right for them. We proactively instituted national School Beverage Guidelines, and our industry’s actions to replace full-calorie beverages with low-calorie, smaller-portion alternatives have paid off. As a result, shipments of full-calorie soft drinks to schools declined by 97% between 2004 and 2010.

Science confirms that when it comes to obesity, all calories count, regardless of their source. Furthermore, research shows all sugar-sweetened beverages combined contribute only 7 percent of the calories in the average American’s diet. In fact, as obesity rates have climbed, soft drink sales have declined by 12.5 percent since 2000.

Bottom line: singling out soda is ineffective and counterproductive, as no one food, beverage or ingredient uniquely causes obesity. Beverages, which come in an array of calories and sizes, can be a part of a balanced, active lifestyle – a balance our industry will continue to promote.- Maureen at American Beverage Association  

BenIncaHutz
BenIncaHutz

Its sugar water and acid.  Theres nothing healthy about it.

People can do and buy whatever they want but I dont want to see ads from Tabacco companies telling me that smoking is healthy when everyone knows its not!!!

Suteki73
Suteki73

People need to sop trying to place responsibility for personal decisions on companies.  I am a regular (~7 times a week) customer at fast food restaurants, and in better shape than most 40 year olds.  I know if I am going to eat fast food I need to pay for it in the gym.  Anyone who says they don't know fast food is bad for you, cola is bad for you, and they should exercise are lying.  Why are we not criticizing the TV industry.  They promote a sedentary lifestyle of sitting on the couch watching TV shows, movies and playing video games.  No matter how influential a commercial may be, what I do or don't do is ultimately my choice.  Stop trying to find a scapegoat for your bad decisions......

Karen Lawrence Coleman
Karen Lawrence Coleman

Hypocritical. There is nothing in soda that your body needs, and a lot of harmful stuff it doesn't. It's one of the original manufactured necessities. Injurious and wasteful industries like this ought to just disappear.

Erick Wicks
Erick Wicks

Social Responsibility campaigns by companies are very common. Any industry does this simply to save fave or keep their market share from sliding. I cant blame them. I do blame us for not practicing Personal Responsibility. I dont blame gun companies for more deaths, nor McDonalds for fat kids, Nor abortion clinics for a rise in abortions, nor the govt for allowing companies to use any product in foods. The blame falls on us for being bad examples for kids, for not taking stands and uniting, for not caring about the future, etc etc. Its easy to blame others but usually we play a hand in fault...and often the greatest hand. We have known for years cigarettes are bad/deadly but yet we still continue to use them. No matter what a company and the govt cant make us make wise decisions....its the job of parents to be good leaders and to educate their kids.......thats where blame falls.

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@KimGaleazRDN,CD Bull. It's about PR, nothing more. And kale chips don't really have significantly fewer calories than potato chips; in reality, you should avoid ANYTHING with a health claim.

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@BenIncaHutz Eh? Some acids are healthy. (After all, vitamin C is an acid.) But I'd just say it's just...pure liquid calories. No other significant benefits. Can't people just drink water?

BTW, there was a time when tobacco companies did just that. That's where we get cigarette filters and menthol cigarettes from. They also pointed out that...smoking instead of eating candy could help a girl maintain her figure.

YulDorotheo
YulDorotheo

@Suteki73 If only most people were as decided as you about food (you eat more at NON-fast-food restaurants than 7x/week, and I'm betting you don't regularly overeat either) and exercise. There are numerous studies on the influence of advertising and promotions on consumers, particularly on the impressionable young. These are among the social determinants of health.

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@Karen Lawrence Coleman Well, there's H2O and C6H12O6, but you can get those in healthier ways than soda. ;)

afmajret
afmajret

@Karen Lawrence Coleman When people are prevented from exercising their right to decide what they want for themselves, who, then gets to decide for them? You?

YulDorotheo
YulDorotheo

@Erick Wicks You'd be right IF most people had all the relevant facts about all consumer products, but we don't. Companies usually provide only partial information, the bits that make it appear their products are safe and healthy. Then they do CSR to make it appear that they are doing their part for consumers, when their goal is actually to protect their profits from effective regulation.

eanut1
eanut1

@aliberaldoseofskepticism @BenIncaHutz I agree - what about drinking water, maybe with a little lemon in it for flavoring out of Glass because it tastes so much better!  Single-use soda or water bottles don't make much sense...water in Glasstic bottles for me!

Suteki73
Suteki73

@YulDorotheo @Suteki73 Poor decision making and our societies propensity to blame institutions or companies for personal decisions is a detriment to our society .  We have a become a society of victims with no personal responsibility.  No one can say "I didn't know fast food, cola, etc was bad for me" or " I didn't know I should exercise" and to say advertising can make someone to make bad health decisions is akin to calling people mindless drones.  People are lazy, not stupid......

BenIncaHutz
BenIncaHutz

@afmajretPeople can do and buy whatever they want but I dont want to see ads from Tabacco companies telling me that smoking is healthy when everyone knows its not!!