Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)” (Oxford University Press, 2015), edited for length.
In 2013, the Hispanic Institute issued a report about how sugary drinks affect the health of its community. The institute, based in Washington, urged its constituents to stop collaborating with soda companies. Its report called the community to action: “The negative effects of sugary drinks, other bad food choices and lack of regular exercise on the health of the fastest-growing group in America will continue until Hispanics use their considerable political clout to influence public policymaking and their economic strength to influence purveyors of those products.”
In an interview, institute president Gus West said, “Of course, we’re responsible for what we eat and drink . . . but we’re also subject to the effects of massive advertising and misleading promotional campaigns — especially on our children and the poor.” Community organizations, he said, need “to walk away from funding by the processed-food and big sugary-drink companies.” Hispanic organizations “broke with tobacco companies” in the 1990s, he said, and now need to do the same with soda companies.
Obesity changes the game. It forces Hispanic and African Americans to reexamine their relationships with soda companies. Some members of these communities once viewed this targeted marketing as a testament to their rising economic and social status within American society. While some continue to prize the efforts of soda companies to advertise in their publications and support their organizations, the rising prevalence of obesity in their communities led others to view such relationships as exploitative. To some community leaders, soda companies echo the actions of tobacco companies in the ways they market to groups most vulnerable to the harm caused by their products.
Soda companies have an exceptionally complicated relationship to racial and ethnic minorities in the United States.
Within these diverse communities, those most likely to benefit from soda industry marketing and philanthropy are usually those least likely to bear the burdens of soda-related health problems. The unequal distribution of costs and benefits in part explains why some prominent minority organizations support the industry in its opposition to public health measures such as soda taxes or size caps. In this context, the Hispanic Institute’s call to action broke new ground.
African and Hispanic Americans drink more sodas and — no surprise — display a higher prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes than their white counterparts. Although 55 percent of whites say they routinely drink regular (sugar-sweetened) sodas, nearly 70 percent of African and Hispanic Americans report doing so, and these groups generally drink less diet soda. When asked, they say that their soda-drinking habits are strongly influenced by television advertising, especially when commercials feature celebrities of their own race or ethnicity.
African and Hispanic Americans (particularly Mexican Americans) also display a higher prevalence of overweight and obesity than their white counterparts. Obesity is a principal risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and you might guess that its prevalence is higher among African Americans and Hispanics than in whites. You would be right. Its prevalence is nearly twice as high.
From the time sodas were invented in the late 1800s until the mid-20th century, the American population was racially segregated, and so were soda fountains. Once sodas were sold in bottles, however, anyone could buy them.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Pepsi began selling its 12-ounce soda for the same nickel as a 6.5-ounce Coke, a strategy designed to appeal to the poor. When Walter Mack took over Pepsi in 1938, he deliberately set out to make Pepsi more widely available to the “Negro market.” Pepsi recruited African American interns during World War II and, most remarkably, opened integrated canteens overseas, at a time when U.S. military services were firmly segregated. After the war, Pepsi hired an Urban League staff member and allowed him to recruit a small staff of African American marketers to promote the drink at churches, schools and sports events, and to place ads in African American publications featuring African American celebrities. In some circles, Pepsi became known as the drink for African Americans, whereas Coca-Cola remained the elite drink for whites.
Although based in the South — and perhaps because it was based in the overtly segregated South — Coca-Cola did nothing special to appeal to African Americans until after World War II. Coke placed its first ad in African American newspapers in 1951 and soon began supporting community organizations such as the NAACP. In Coca-Cola’s version of this history, the company never discriminated against African Americans: “From the turn of the century to the mid-1950s the promise of a ‘nickel Coke’ made the product widely available to Americans of all means, with no barriers of race or class. . . . As early as 1914, there is documentation showing that Coca-Cola was being served in African American–owned soda fountains.” Perhaps, but those fountains were segregated.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, African American professionals began to advocate for more access to sodas, more advertising in African American publications and more inclusion in the soda corporate world. They organized boycotts to induce Coca-Cola to hire African American salesmen. When the Supreme Court desegregated schools in 1954, Southern Coke bottlers who were serving on White Citizens Councils vowed to close the schools rather than integrate them. This created a dilemma: If Coca-Cola forged relationships with African Americans — who made up 30 percent of the Southern market for its products — it might alienate its white customers.
Moss Kendrix, an African American public relations specialist, offered the company a way out: Advertise directly to the community. “Profits to the Coca-Cola Company and its bottlers would be immeasurable,” Kendrix wrote. “In addition to capitalizing on the current Negro market, the project would embrace a type of public relations involving youth which should tend to cultivate future markets.” Coca-Cola hired Kendrix as a roving ambassador. He induced the company to place separate-but-equal ads featuring prominent African American athletes. It did so, but only in African American publications.
This project paved the way for soda companies’ responses to the civil rights movement. It was not an accident that the movement began in earnest in 1960 when four African American college students sat down at a Woolworth soda fountain in Greensboro, N.C. The refusal to serve them Cokes was a powerful symbol of injustice — the denial of their ability to fully access the American way of life. Atlanta, Coca-Cola’s hometown, desegregated lunch counters the following year.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Coca-Cola’s president, Paul Austin, led the way in convincing other white businessmen to support a local celebration dinner. Reportedly, Austin said that “It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner.”
But when the company did not respond to employment demands, King urged his followers to boycott. In Memphis, the night before he was assassinated, he said, “We are asking you tonight to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola.”
Coke’s response was to increase philanthropic contributions to the community. The company made donations to historically black colleges, the NAACP and other civil rights groups. It began hiring African Americans into the lower ranks of its workers. By the early 1980s, African American employees constituted 24 percent of Coke’s workforce — but included only one executive, Carl Ware, a vice president of “special markets.”
Coke’s discriminatory hiring policies became the target of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) campaign, which called for a month-long “don’t choke on Coke” boycott, politely framed as a “withdrawal of enthusiasm.” Coke eventually agreed to the campaign’s terms. It appointed 20 African American wholesalers, made loans to African American entrepreneurs in the beverage industry, agreed to increase its advertising in African American publications and committed to doing business with banks owned by African Americans.
The company also began working on its relationship to the rapidly expanding Hispanic community. It hired Ogilvy and Mather, an advertising and public relations firm, to conduct a survey of Hispanic attitudes and concerns. In 1984, backed by a $10 million investment, the company hired Hispanic advertising firms, executives, sales and marketing representatives; established partnerships with Hispanic banks and vendors; and set up an education fund for Hispanic students in key cities.
By the early 1990s, Pepsi and Coke were fighting for market share among minority groups. In a 1992 Associated Press article, the head of Coca-Cola USA, M. Douglas Ivester, said: “Our strategy is very simple, and it’s to lead in the ethnic activities of America, to increase our coverage in ethnic stores — for example, in the inner city — and to leverage the brand strength that we already have with Hispanics and with African-Americans.” Some minority groups welcomed the attention. “We favor companies diversifying their strategies and including a more balanced picture of [what] their consumer market is, rather than just picturing white families,” said Earl Shinhoster, Southeast director of the NAACP. The contradictions inherent in such marketing were already well understood by advertising executives: “If you don’t market to minority groups, you can be accused of not caring about them,” said Paul Counsell, head of the Milwaukee-based Cramer-Krasselt. “If you do market to them, you can be accused of exploiting them.”
But well into the 1990s, Coca-Cola was still dealing with serious racial problems within the company. After the Labor Department found numerous violations of federal anti-discrimination laws; it asked Coke to fix the problems. In 1999, current and former employees organized the Committee for Corporate Justice; its class-action suit involved 2,200 plaintiffs who demanded compensation for systematic discrimination. The suit was settled in mediation in 2000 for $192.5 million. In 2012, 16 African American and Hispanic production workers in Coke bottling plants in New York City alleged in a suit that the company forced them to work in “a cesspool of racial discrimination.”
Pepsi, based in the North, has a somewhat better employment history, but not by much. In 2012, the Minneapolis office of the Equal Opportunity Commission fined PepsiCo more than $3 million to resolve findings of nationwide hiring discrimination against black employees.
PepsiCo is one of the 50 leading advertisers in Hispanic media, spending $33.6 million on that market alone in 2013. Soda companies target Hispanic children through advertisements on Spanish-language television that feature soccer and Spanish-speaking celebrities. Hispanic children also see soda advertisements on English-language television, but more soda advertising is aimed at them than at non-Hispanic children.
The same is true of advertising aimed at African American children. As a result, African American children visit soda Web sites more than do white children and see more soda commercials on television and elsewhere. As for minority adults, soda companies reach them through advertisements and sponsored events featuring athletes and celebrities, and through music concerts, cultural festivals, dance competitions and business and professional conferences.
Soda companies also produce posters and publications aimed at promoting cultural values. Because these activities are typically sponsored by foundations established by Coca-Cola or PepsiCo, they appear as philanthropy. But the line between philanthropy and marketing is blurred. Both aim to promote brand loyalty and increase soda sales.
Soda companies explicitly use philanthropy to forge relationships with African and Hispanic American community groups. As part of the 2000 lawsuit settlement, Coca-Cola committed $50 million to support minority organizations and causes. Today it is difficult to imagine an African or Hispanic American organization or event that is not sponsored by Coke, Pepsi or the American Beverage Association.
In 2012, Pepsi gave $100,000 to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, half for scholarships for journalism students. Pepsi announced the gift as part of La Promesa, a corporate social responsibility campaign focusing on “Latino empowerment and the issues that matter most to Hispanics.” In 2013, the United Negro College Fund gave its president’s award to Ingrid Saunders Jones, the African American Coca-Cola executive responsible for much corporate giving to minority groups. When she retired as chair of the National Council of Negro Women, the Coca-Cola Foundation surprised her with a $1 million gift to this group.
Under such circumstances, recipient journalists and community groups can hardly be expected to write stories or make statements criticizing soda companies for producing drinks that contribute to poor health in their communities.
Obesity, however, makes such sponsorship appear less favorable. In 2013, for example, Yale alumni protested PepsiCo’s sponsorship of a speech to be given by the first Supreme Court justice of Hispanic origin, Sonia Sotomayor.
Another example involves singer Beyoncé. As the most famous supporter of First Lady Michele Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, she has come under fire for her appearances in Pepsi commercials. In 2012, she accepted a $50 million, multiyear deal with Pepsi that put her face on soda cans. Although the Pepsi deal put her in conflict with the goals of Let’s Move! and prompted calls for her to be “disinvited” from singing the national anthem at President Obama’s inauguration, the White House continued to work with her.
As soda companies compete more intensely for the minority market, they sometimes end up taking risks that get them in trouble. Pepsi, for example, recruited two rap musicians, Tyler the Creator and Lil Wayne, to make edgy Mountain Dew commercials that would “go viral.” Objections that the commercials used vulgar, sexist and racist language and images forced the company to withdraw them.
Despite these problems, the advertising industry rationalizes such marketing as a sensible and meritorious business strategy. David Morse, the author of a book about how to market to race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, argues that such market segmentation builds brand loyalty: “Hispanics and African Americans are much less interested in diet products,” he writes. “Sugary drinks — often the sweeter, the better — do well with them . . . . As a multicultural marketer, I applaud the leadership of the soft-drink industry in recognizing the changing face of America.”
Advertising Age urges marketers to sponsor emerging Hispanic musicians who can easily relate to speakers of both Spanish and English and connect with a broader range of Latino customers.
The condescension and cynicism involved in targeting minority groups at high risk of obesity does make some marketers uncomfortable. In his 2012 interview about the karmic debt owed for selling Coca-Cola, former marketing executive Todd Putman explained: “It was just a fact that Hispanics and African Americans have a higher per capita consumption of sugar-based soft drinks than white Americans. We knew that if we got more products into those environments those segments would drink more.”
Decades of philanthropy have convinced many — but by no means all — African and Hispanic American groups that soda companies have their interests at heart and that efforts to tax sodas or cap soda sizes are modern-day manifestations of elitist white supremacy. These opinions leave advocates for minority health, who may view marketing targeted to minority groups as inherently racist and exploitative, with few options.
If the disproportionate share of health burdens borne by minority groups is to be reduced, these advocates must fight to help members of their communities recognize the connection between these burdens and consumption of heavily marketed junk foods and sodas. Advocates must find ways to empower their communities to understand how soda company philanthropy and marketing are inextricably linked to business objectives.
One way to reveal the primacy of business motives might be to suggest to soda companies that their grants to minority groups come with no strings attached: no press releases, no logos and no in-kind contributions. Groups negotiating for soda industry funding might ask that all donations be anonymous, and take note of the response.
Nestle, professor of nutrition and sociology at New York University, is the author of several books about food policy, including “What to Eat,” “Why Calories Count,” “Food Politics” and “Eat Drink Vote.”