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.