Looking to shift the conversation from obesity, big soda companies have begun an aggressive campaign to frame Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed restrictions on large (over 16 ounces) sugary beverages as an attack on personal choice. They claim that “consumers have the right to purchase beverages in whatever size they choose.”
These tactics aren’t new at all – they’re taken from the playbook of those opposing the health care law, as well as the one used in the past by tobacco companies, trying to focus responsibility on consumers rather than on themselves. Somewhat not surprisingly, this is not the only practice the beverage and tobacco industries share.
As a new research is revealing, the two industries have much in common especially when it comes to implementing CSR strategies. The researchers believe that just like the tobacco industry in the past, the beverage industry is now using CSR to divert the attention of the public, regulators and health educators from the connection between soda drinks and obesity. They even go further claiming that “unlike tobacco CSR campaigns, soda company CSR campaigns explicitly aim to increase sales, including among young people.” The research leaves us with the feeling that CSR has become a greenwashing tool for beverage companies like PepsiCo or Coca-Cola, but is it really so?
The research entitled “Soda and Tobacco Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns: How Do They Compare?” is a comparative study assessing the overlap between the CSR practices of the two industries. It starts with the tobacco industry, reminding us that in response to the pressures tobacco companies were facing in the 1990s, they all began to implement CSR programs “to improve their corporate and product images and to prevent legal and regulatory action.” The main example the research provides is Philip Morris’s PM21 campaign. According to the research, PM21 used paid advertisements and a dedicated website to highlight the company’s charitable contributions to causes eradicate homelessness and domestic abuse and support the arts. This continued a previous strategy to co-opt interest groups that might oppose tobacco industry programs.
As the research mentions, PM21 was far from Big Tobacco’s only CSR effort, but at the same time PM21 was “the industry’s most ambitious and visible CSR program.” The problem is that PM21 was at best a cause marketing campaign, not a CSR campaign. A report prepared for the World Health Organization calls it “a public relations campaign aimed at changing its corporate image.”
The same problem appears when we get to examples from the beverage industry. The main examples cited in the research are PepsiCo’s Refresh Project and Change4Life campaigns and Coca-Cola’s Live Positively campaign. The researchers claim that PepsiCo through its campaigns “intends to take advantage of Millennials’ desire to support or do business with companies that contribute to society by associating their brand with all of the community projects they fund,” and that PepsiCo “is using CSR as a marketing tool.” Coke, the researchers add, uses educational campaigns such as “Balanced Living” or “Exercise is Medicine” to urge individual consumers to achieve healthy lifestyles. By doing so it reinforces the idea that “obesity is caused by customers’ “bad” behavior, diverting attention from soda’s contribution to rising obesity rates.”
The researchers’ observations are certainly accurate, but again the problem is that they mainly relate to the cause marketing campaigns of both Coke and PepsiCo, not their overall CSR policies. The researchers don’t mention for example some important core areas of Coca-Cola’s CSR framework, such as energy efficiency, climate protection, sustainable packaging and water stewardship, or PepsiCo’s water conservation efforts. So in a way we receive a bit of an unfair representation of these companies’ CSR efforts – focused mostly on their cause marketing campaigns.
At the same time the researchers provide further indications to a point we made here in the past – companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo like to define by themselves what is material to their CSR and what isn’t. They don’t like others to do it for them as you can learn from past fights over access to public areas to the current struggles on soda tax and Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed restrictions. As the researchers suggest, CSR (or actually cause marketing campaigns) is a tool they use quite effectively to meet their goal of preventing regulation, reframing the issue as a personal freedom fight rather than a health concern. According to the researchers, these tactics are similar to the ones the tobacco industry used in the past.
The researchers conclude that “public health advocates must continue to monitor the CSR activities of soda companies, and remind the public and policymakers that, similar to Big Tobacco, soda industry CSR aims to position the companies, and their products, as socially acceptable rather than contributing to a social ill.” I would agree with them, only that the recommendation should be about cause marketing, not CSR.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.