Saturday, May 14, 2011

In the War against Big Food, Money and Messaging Trump Science

“We need to bring as much rigor to the fight (for a healthy, sustainable food system) as we have to the science.” That perceptive statement came from a public health leader, Dr. Robert K. Ross, President and CEO of the California Endowment at the May 4th Future of Food conference in Washington D.C., and raises a critically important point.*

The world of public health and its funders can be very genteel. When a policy like the soda tax fails to get enacted due to strong, well financed opposition from industry, public health advocates want more science. They often believe that the new data collected, the indisputable conclusions drawn, or the attendant policy recommendations will finally convince policymakers and the public to take action. But, as Dr. Ross pointed out, if you think you are in a policy debate and the other side thinks it is in a fight, you are not going to come out too well. And so far in this food fight, public health is pretty bruised and battered.

The reality is, that when up against deep-pocketed, no-holds barred opponents, like Big Food, Big Beverage and Big Agriculture, public health’s focus on science and evidence is easily trumped by money and messaging. If public health advocates don’t start rolling up their sleeves and using some of the same tactics used by industry, progress in this fight to create a safe, healthy, sustainable food system is going to move more slowly than a teenager asked to clean his room. Science and “being right” are no substitute for a strong, strategic and powerful movement. Public health groups and their funders must find ways to pool resources and utilize costly professional advocacy marketing, P.R. and grassroots movement development. Sweeping policy change can only be driven by a powerful professional messaging campaign and a grassroots movement.

Industry hires the top messaging agencies and consultants, and devotes big money to framing their messages and successfully reframing ours. Witness the millions (certainly well over $100 million) Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper/Snapple, et al., have spent on a nationwide campaign to fight soda taxes. In New York State alone, the soft drink industry spent $13 million in just the first six months of 2010, to successfully fend off a penny per ounce soda tax. What did that money buy? A slick, professional ad campaign that was created by the same advocacy marketing firm that brought us the infamous “Harry and Louise.” And what were public health professionals doing to convince legislators and the public that a soda tax was necessary for the health of consumers? They were distributing fact sheets filled with meticulously researched statistics and dozens of studies that have identified sugary drinks as a leading cause of our obesity epidemic -- ammunition which fell flat compared to Big Beverage’s professional and misleading messaging campaign.

Studies and evidence get steamrollered by marketing, messaging and deft public relations. While good science should be the basis of any public health campaign, it can't be the only strategy. Dr. Ross’ fine speech should act as a wake up call to the entire public health community and our funders. I propose that a public health conference called "How to Fight Industry at its Own Game" be organized in order to change the way public health advocates, professionals and their funders view their responsibilities and teach them some of the tactics they need to win.

We must fight fire with fire. Let's light the match!

*Thank you to Marion Nestle for highlighting Dr. Ross' speech in her blog, Food Politics.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

In Denial? Health Organizations that Take Money From Pepsi, Coke, etc. are Damaging the Healthy Food Movement and Public Health

Ever since sugary drink taxes were proposed, Big Beverage has been in a philanthropic frenzy trying to co-opt as many groups as possible.  Witness recent Big Beverage donations to:
o     The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for obesity prevention programs – I kid you not! ($10 million was promised if Philly did not pass a sugary drink tax – they didn’t and the donation was made)
o     The American Academy of Family Physicians for a partnership with Coca-Cola
o     Save the Children ($5 Million from PepsiCo) and the promise of a major grant donation from Coca-Cola, all to get the organization to stop advocating for passage of sugary drink taxes (they stopped advocating).

It's time for a thoughtful discussion among advocates on whether health, wellness, food security and other organizations should accept funding from junk food purveyors like Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, McDonald’s or Frito Lay, or if it’s best to accept no funding at all from the food/beverage industry.  

It's clear that Pepsi and other beverage brands use their philanthropy to purchase allies and silence potential critics, just like Big Tobacco did.  What's amazing is how many important organizations that do good work are in denial on this issue. The most common defense is that there is much good work that can be done -- even with tainted, special interest money -- and that accepting funding from a company like PepsiCo doesn't impact their organization's advocacy positions on sugary drinks. That doesn't hold water, as the Save the Children debacle demonstrated and it's hard to believe that health organizations and others would not feel obliged to "tone down" their rhetoric on topics that might make PepsiCo withhold future donations.

In addition, by accepting funding from a company like PepsiCo, health organizations and others are simultaneously promoting a brand that markets junk food and unhealthy sugary beverages – specifically targeting kids, teens and low-income consumers.  Is that the message they want to deliver to their constituents?

No doubt there is a dearth of funding for the projects and advocacy that many well-intentioned groups are involved in. However, deep pocketed companies like Coke, Pepsi and McDonald’s are well aware of the lack of funding and that’s what makes their “philanthropy” so devious.  They know that if they dangle funding in front of cash-starved health/wellness/food security and other groups, they will find many takers – and simultaneously silence potential critics of their products and marketing practices.     

The current, hyper-publicized Pepsi Refresh campaign that is attracting hundreds of small projects in an online competition -- a good number of which are health related -- is just another high profile way for Pepsi to use its deep pockets to improve its image and silence critics. Pepsi is hardly the only brand blanketing America with philanthropy designed to win friends and influence legislators. According to a marketing executive who is extremely cognizant of beverage and fast food industry marketing to the Hispanic and African American communities, “In minority communities fast food and Big Soda have aligned with practically every recognized advocacy and aspirational non-profit organization.”

That’s not by accident. It’s clearly a carefully thought out strategy (remarkably similar to the strategy of Big Tobacco) to try to buy silence from as many organizations, market segments and communities as possible. 

In my opinion, organizations that accept this type of tainted, special interest money not only damage their credibility but are complicit in presenting Big Beverage/fast food purveyors (and their products, by association) as benevolent benefactors. This sets back the healthy food movement, probably by years, and that's exactly what companies like PepsiCo are banking on.