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Fighting Back Against Companies’ Behind-the-Scenes Tactics to Market Sugary Drinks to Kids

Sugary drinks advertising in the United States is pervasive—from social media and video games to TV and billboards. And the majority is targeted at Black and Hispanic youth.

These ads are part of the beverage industry’s strategic marketing campaign, ripped right out of the tobacco playbook, to sell their products to kids, intentionally making sure they keep coming back for more. 

Their tactics range from overt—using kid-friendly characters to entice youth—to the covert: blocking government interference in their marketing schemes and fostering the illusion of healthy products. Fortunately, advocates are fighting back and making strides to protect kids’ health. 

Parallels Between Beverage and Tobacco Industries’ Marketing Practices

We talked with Kelly Brownell, PhD, director of the World Food Policy Center, professor of public policy, and former dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, and Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, about tactics that the beverage and tobacco industries use to market unhealthy products to kids and how advocates are fighting back. In a related commentary, we explore how beverage companies pour billions of dollars into marketing campaigns that target children.

Block Government Intervention

Beverage companies go to great lengths to ensure that government policies don’t interfere with their ability to target young audiences. They form political allies through manipulation and funding lobbying efforts to prevent bills that may harm their industry and ensure that industry-friendly policies make it through.

Matthew Myers

“Beverage companies spend massive amounts of money, hiring very well-paid lobbyists, to create confusion with legislators and to justify not taking reasonable, responsible action. Often providing legislators with alternate policy frameworks that divert attention from everything that needs to be done.”

Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

Industry’s efforts to counteract taxes on sugary drinks, which have been proposed as a strategy for reducing obesity and raising revenue for public health measures, is one example.

Video transcript, from Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director, World Food Policy Center: “When the industry finds something that they don’t like, like soda taxes, which they really don’t like… It’s been their number one policy priority, to stop soda taxes. When that’s the case and they can’t get it done by lobbying and doing stuff in communities, they will very often go to a level of government and ask the government, that level of government, to forbid lower levels of government from taking an action like doing soda taxes. And it was right out of the tobacco playbook.”

Create An Illusion of Health

And with so-called “healthier” alternative options to their products, such as “premium waters,” “diet” sodas and “zero-sugar” products, beverage companies can convince customers that they’re looking out for public health. It’s a tactic that’s worked well for Big Tobacco, which provided filters, e-cigarettes, and other options that foster an illusion of health and safety, keep consumers from quitting their products, and even bring in new consumers. 

“Beverage companies’ claims about introducing more water products and reducing the number of high-sugar products in schools are really efforts to prevent policies that would make it much harder to market or sell unhealthy drinks at cheap prices.” 

— Matthew Myers

Protecting Children’s Health 

Fortunately, just as they’ve done with the tobacco industry, advocates have made strides in both raising awareness about beverage company marketing tactics and developing tactics to prevent marketing and sales to children.

For example, the updated Nutrition Facts label, which took effect in January 2020, now includes the amount and percent daily value of added sugars in addition to total sugars.

National menu labeling guidelines, a provision of the Affordable Care Act, require chain restaurants and other similar food retail establishments to provide nutrition information (including added sugars) to consumers upon request.

And seven U.S. cities and the Navajo Nation have passed taxes on sugary drinks, ranging in value from one to two cents per ounce. Research has generally found that the taxes result in people buying significantly fewer sugary drinks. Some studies show people are consuming fewer sugary drinks overall after the taxes pass. And, revenue programs are helping to address health and socioeconomic inequities in some communities.

Kelly Brownell headshot

“Soda taxes would be at the top of my list. They have produced the most consistent, positive data on reduction in consumption of the beverages and they are politically feasible. Soda taxes exist in about 50 countries internationally, and in major U.S. cities such as Oakland, Philadelphia, Seattle, and San Francisco. The next frontier in the United States will be getting states to pass taxes and not have to rely on actions city-by-city. ”

—Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director of the World Food Policy Center, Professor of Public Policy, and Former Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University

Continuing to raise awareness about the beverage industry’s harmful marketing tactics is another critical strategy—and something that has worked similarly well for anti-tobacco advocates.

We can count this as progress, but there’s more to be done. The bottom line is that sugary drinks harm children’s health. They contribute to obesity and other serious diseases such as diabetes, which disproportionately affect Black and Latinx communities and increase risk for more severe cases of COVID-19.

“We need to empower communities and hold companies and public officials accountable. If we stick within the normal, traditional public health tools, the industry will outsmart us and undermine the efforts.”

— Matthew Myers

It’s more important than ever for local leaders, advocates and partners to come together and find bold, new ways to prevent harmful and unfair marketing tactics that put kids’ health and future at risk.