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Soda summit discusses sugar intake, marketing

Khalil Abdullah | 6/20/2012, 10:05 a.m.

For instance, price, or the affordability of SSBs, is readily apparent in the discounts offered for larger-sized single servings and multi-pack volume purchases.

“Soft drinks are cheaper than water in many cases, right? That’s just crazy,” Putman said. However, he contended, it’s a product’s availability that has a higher correlation with boosting the holy grail of higher per capita consumption and stomach-share.

Availability is reflected in the presence of SSBs in stores, fast-food outlets, stadiums and the myriad of venues that provide retail sales opportunities, including vending machines that now number greater than 3 million in the United States, according to Putman.

Accessibility, though, in marketing parlance, is different. It’s the marketer’s goal to assure that the product is ever-present in the consumer’s mind. “I am pervasive. I spend billions of dollars making sure that I am touchable. I’m online, I’m off-line. I’m in theme parks, I’m at the Olympics, I’m at American Idol —  I’m everywhere you want to be,” Putman said of the beverage industry’s strategy. “Accessibility is how can I reach into your head, grab your cortex and pull it back towards myself.”

Dr. Shiriki Kumanyika, a professor of epidemiology and the associate dean for health promotion and disease prevention at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, noted that it is difficult to develop counterstrategies to compete with marketing SSBs to African American and Latino communities, which suffer from the highest rates of obesity and diabetes.

She pointed out that the beverage industry’s money also supports community sponsorships and therefore “effectively silences black leaders who would like to talk about the problem,” for fear of losing that revenue stream.

Rudy Ruiz, president of Interlex Communications, whose agency has been engaged in public health advocacy, contended that social media can play a critical role in countering the beverage industry’s messaging onslaught. In fact, the conference opened with a video by 18-year-old Will Haynes, a winner in the “Soda Sucks” campaign, a competition sponsored by New America Media to encourage youth to choose water as an alternative to soda.     And, at the closing reception, attendees were treated to a live rendition by Sean Shavers of his award-winning rap, which included the lines: “Now, what they don’t tell you, on the back of that soda can, is that you can have diabetes as a young man. One pour, one sip — Pepsi, Sierra Mist, Seven Up, Sunkist — I don’t drink none of this.”

In his presentation, Putman acknowledged the potential of social media to play a role in nudging consumers toward healthier alternatives than SSBs, but reminded his audience that the beverage industry anchors its marketing around emotional appeals, not rational choices. Toward that end, he said, it is imperative to understand that “the resources, the scale, the intelligence, the strategy that those companies use, is absolutely intense.”

For example, one presenter noted that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has spent $100 million a year on its anti-obesity initiative. In contrast, in 2010 alone, Coca-Cola’s U.S. media spending totaled more than $400 million and the company is ramping up a social media campaign of its own.

New America Media