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Can You Trust A Study On Fruit Funded By Coca-Cola? How Big Soda Rides The Line Between Health And Hypocrisy

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Big Soda has entered into a tenuous debate over personal and corporate responsibility with ad campaigns that paint soda drinkers and the health-conscious as one and the same. Flickr, Omer Wazir

A recent study from the University of Leeds shows that dieting women preferred oranges over chocolate when they smelled oranges beforehand, as opposed to similar dieters who smelled chocolate first. Along with a handful of related studies, the researchers eventually concluded that the mere presence of healthy food can help remind a person of their overall diet goals, prompting them to make healthier choices.

This study was funded by the Coca-Cola Company, a multinational corporation that offers more than 500 brands in over 200 countries, most of which are syrup-based nonalcoholic beverages. Only recently has the company dipped into more health-oriented products, such as the 2007 purchase of Glaceau, the company responsible for producing Vitamin Water. For much of the world, however, Coca-Cola represents big business at its apex, so red flags inevitably rise when the company, and many others like it, begin airing advertisements that feature slim, bright-eyed millenials enjoying products that have no real nutritive value.

Admittedly, such business practices are nothing new. Big Tobacco funds nearly all advertisements that warn consumers of the negative health effects of consuming tobacco. And while a 1998 settlement to the tune of $206 billion mandated major tobacco companies like Philip Morris must finance these campaigns, the tobacco companies are protected from the ads vilifying them specifically. One ad, for instance, featured a "Demon Awards" ceremony in Hell, where a tobacco executive accepts the award for "Most Deaths in a Year" as Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and members of the KKK cheer him on.

Philip Morris protested these commercials, arguing they violated the settlement's anti-vilification clause. The American Legacy Foundation, the nation's largest anti-tobacco advertiser, responded by removing the Philip Morris logo from the ad.

"How can you run an anti-smoking campaign and not vilify the industry?" asked David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration. "It would be better not to take the money if the industry is able to pull the strings."

Big Soda As The New Big Tobacco

Big Tobacco isn't the only group that experiences these public relations snafus, though it is perhaps the most popular. Other companies, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which owns Frito Lay, among others, strive to maintain positive reputations in health-conscious circles, but while still keeping sales on the uptick.

As one study notes, this has not always been easy. Implicit in the ads for sweet or salty snacks is the notion that corporate responsibility has shifted to personal responsibility. Companies believe they should not be held liable for the unhealthful choices made by the consumer, alleges Andrew Cheyne, study co-author and a researcher at the Berkeley Media Studies Group in California.

Cheyne criticizes Big Soda in the same way others have lambasted Big Tobacco for disingenuously warning people of the dangers posed by tobacco, a veil that Cheyne refers to as corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns.

"Soda CSR initiatives have to be put in perspective," Cheyne said. "They're using them to distract the public and policy makers from their main business, which is selling sugary and caffeinated drinks to as many people as possible."

The researchers on Cheyne's team go as far as to compare the health detriments of consuming sugary beverages to smoking cigarettes, the truthfulness of which the American Beverage Association has outright rejected.

"Emerging science on the addictiveness of sugar, especially when combined with the known addictive properties of caffeine found in many sugary beverages," Cheyne's report states, "should further heighten awareness of the product's public health threat similar to the understanding about the addictiveness of tobacco products," to which the ABA responded in an open statement with outrage:

"There is simply no comparison between soda and tobacco - not among our products, nor our business practices. Tobacco in and of itself is harmful - in any amount; our beverages are not. They can be enjoyed as part of a balanced, active and healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, despite the authors' suggestions, corporate social responsibility programs are not unique to our industry. They are widely recognized and embraced by leading businesses around the globe. To suggest otherwise is not only untrue, but shines a light on the inherent bias of this opinion piece."

The Critical Balance

What ruffles the feathers of CSR activists is the part the ABA mentions about a "balanced, active and healthy lifestyle." Very rarely, activists argue, do the large beverage companies include such disclaimers as part of their advertisements — unlike beer and liquor manufacturers, who are required by law to tell consumers to drink responsibly.

In this, the problem of corporate responsibility becomes an awareness issue, in which the Coca-Cola Company has tried to make great strides in recent years. It has made efforts to more prominently offer zero-calorie options, along with highlighting nutritional information relevant to consumers. But even these efforts do not come without controversy, as some experts claim the information is intentionally misleading in order to promote consumption, and that zero-calorie options see far less ad time than the company's namesake variety.

"They say they will provide transparent nutrition information, listing calories on the front of all packages, but consumers continue to be confused because Coca-Cola declares the nutritional info on a per serving basis," said Kantha Shelke, a food scientist at Corvus Blue LLC and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, "and most people consume the entire can, which is incidentally not re-closeable. Such a move does not seem transparent to me."

The argument over CSR often divides people into one of two camps. Either people believe Coca-Cola should be free to produce, market, and sell whatever products they choose, leaving the consumer to make a personal choice... or people believe Coca-Cola has a greater social weight on its shoulders. Not only does the company produce a product; it heavily markets that product to unwitting consumers, be they children, the obese, or the otherwise ignorant.

One registered dietician likens the personal choice to eating healthy, a practice many people practice infrequently despite acknowledging the benefits.

"It is a very positive step on their behalf for consumers by educating them on healthy eating. Soda is a choice. The same way a person has a choice to eat fruits and vegetables," said Keri Gans, dietician and author of The Small Change Diet. "Not everyone eats them, even though we know it's good for us."

Then there are people like Andrew Cheyne, who remain skeptical of Coca-Cola's promise that a healthy lifestyle can include drinking the company's soda.

"Even from these brief descriptions," Cheyne wrote in his report, which was published in PLoS One, "it appears that the soda CSR campaigns reinforce the idea that obesity is caused by customers' 'bad' behavior, diverting attention from soda's contribution to rising obesity rates."

Finding A Happy Medium

Resolving the debate over Coca-Cola's CSR means penetrating a deep conceptual barrier in terms of how companies do business. Whether you think companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo can have good intentions when they run their ad campaigns likely reveals a larger truth about your views of personal responsibility. If you only see them as money-making institutions, concerned primarily with meeting their bottom line, you'll likely find yourself seeing the same campaigns as media stunts.

Perhaps the one thing both sides can compromise over is that such corporations are designed to make money, the only difference being to what extent monetary goals influence behavior.

As a marketing officer for Pepsi's Refresh Project Shiv Singh once said, Pepsi's campaign to do public works, such as rebuilding parks and creating public art, is "not a traditional non-profit corporate philanthropy effort that we just go write checks. It's putting the DNA of doing and feeling good at the core of a brand marketing effort.''

But Cheyne remains stoic in his criticism, advocating for social change even if it turns out the corporations should bear the brunt of the blame.

"It's not a matter of what should be done as much as what is being done," he said. "Communities around the country are concerned about sugary drinks, and are beginning to take steps to protect themselves from these harmful products."

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