In the 1990s, downtrodden by scientific links to disease, industry whistleblowers and increasing government regulation, many tobacco companies decided they needed a public relations do-over.
Tobacco industry leader Philip Morris launched a campaign to remind people of all the good the company was doing in the world, including making charitable contributions and starting smoking prevention programs for kids.
The problem? The company's efforts were panned by critics, who said they served only to promote tobacco products and perpetuate the allure of smoking.
Now public health advocates are arguing that when it comes to marketing strategies, soda is the new tobacco. But although there are some parallels, experts say comparing the food and tobacco industries can be like comparing apples to oranges…or cigarettes.
In an article published today in the journal PLoS, researchers argue that soda companies are using clever marketing strategies to distract consumers and regulators from the fact that their products have been implicated in rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
By using corporate social responsibility campaigns, the authors claim that soda companies, like tobacco companies before them, are able to frame themselves as good global citizens, not the companies that make sugary drinks that fuel an obesity epidemic.
"At the same time that that soda industry is using corporate social responsibility campaigns to portray themselves as good corporate citizens, they are fighting these efforts to protect the public's health," said Andrew Cheyne, a media researcher with the Berkeley Media Studies Group and one of the study's authors.
The authors offer a couple of examples: in 2010, PepsiCo launched the "Pepsi Refresh Project," a social marketing campaign that generated buzz for community projects around the country. The company donated over $20 million to the projects that got the most votes. But it also infused good old-fashioned advertising into the campaign – customers who purchased certain Pepsi products could get "power votes," giving their favorite projects a better chance of winning Pepsi's cash.
The Coca-Cola Company launched its "Live Positively" campaign, promoting the benefits of exercise and donating millions to refurbish basketball courts and athletic fields in underserved communities.
The authors argue that the campaign is the company's attempt to deflect blame for obesity away from their products and onto consumers, who should be exercising away the calories they get from sugary drinks.
"Of course there's nothing wrong with funding playgrounds, but they're doing it to distract people, which is exactly what is not needed in the middle of a health crisis," Cheyne said.
The American Beverage Association, a trade group representing the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo and other soda companies, disputed the charges leveled by the authors.
"There is simply no comparison between soda and tobacco – not among our products nor our business practices," the group said in a statement. "Tobacco in and of itself is harmful – in any amount; our beverages are not."
The group also noted that corporate responsibility campaigns are not unique to the soda industry.