June 20, 2012 -- 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.
Marketing campaigns aren't the first time food companies and tobacco companies have taken cues from each other. In 2006, documents uncovered by reporters at the Chicago Tribune revealed intense collaboration between Kraft Foods and Philip Morris, both owned by the company Altria, on the brain science of what flavors make cigarettes and certain foods more appealing.
Dr. David Katz, co-founder of the Yale Prevention Research Center, said those kinds of parallels between food and tobacco giants make it hard to argue that the buck stops simply with the personal responsibility of consumers.
"Are we really expecting the soccer mom to compete with companies that spend millions of dollars on sophisticated research designed to make people consume more?" Katz said.
But when it comes to targeting industries for bad practices, it's not as easy to shame food companies as it is with tobacco companies. Many of the same companies that make products that are loaded with fat, salt and sugar also make products that are healthy alternatives. PepsiCo sells soda, but it also sells bottled water and owns the Quaker Oats brand. Kellogg's pushes Frosted Flakes, but also a healthier line of cereals, Kashi.
And ultimately, people need food.
"With tobacco the product is just bad and we can eradicate it. No one needs to smoke. But we're not going to eradicate food," Katz said.
Those realities introduce a level of necessary collaboration between public health and food industry, one that was never present with tobacco industries. The answer may lie in persuading companies to turn their efforts toward producing healthy products more than unhealthy ones.
David Just, who studies consumers' food decisions at Cornell University, said it's important to remember that food companies likely have no sinister motivations to sell unhealthy products.
"The biggest threat facing food companies is this perception that somehow they're sitting in a boardroom plotting how to make America fat," Just said. "They want to sell beverages, and their profits don't change if people get fat from them or not."
Keith Ayoob, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said consumers need to be reminded that they hold more sway over companies than they might realize.
"Consumers have ultimate power in deciding what product succeeds and what fails. If the consumer demands better, healthier foods, companies would do it in a heartbeat," Ayoob said.
Just notes that soda companies have made billions selling bottled water and other options that aren't as calorie-heavy. But completely changing their ways may be more difficult for some food companies than others. Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, said Coca-Cola is well-aware that its signature product is the classic red can of Coke.
"It's true that some companies are diversifying, and it's our job to help them do that. But most of them are still in massive denial," he said.
But the best way to work with food companies on offering healthier products is still an unsettled debate, even among public health advocates, many of whom disagree on the right combination of industry regulation – unhealthy food taxes? Supersize soda bans? -- and public education needed to fuel the switch to healthier foods.
Katz said public health advocates can again draw lessons from the tobacco industry.
"Frankly we need to learn from the mistakes we made in public health with tobacco. We believed the half measures taken by the companies for far too long," he said. "We do want food corporate citizenship. But the bad behavior deserves to be called out."