You may think you have come to like soda all on your own. But that desire is the product of decades worth of focused and often troubling efforts on behalf of the soda industry.
This is, in so many words, one of the takeaways from a new book about how the industry has paid, lobbied, and hypnotized its way into the hearts of people around the world. The book, called Soda Politics, is written by esteemed New York University professor and long time food industry activist Marion Nestle. And it will leave a sour taste in anyone's mouth.
Over the past 60-plus years, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have invested unfathomable amounts of money to ensure that people crave their core products. And that investment has often come in forms far more devious than most would imagine, Nestle argues. Sure, the soda industry has paid for its fair share of television commercials, bulletin board ads, and marketing campaigns. But it has also worked (i.e. paid) to block unfavorable legislation, influence policy, maintain its popularity among poor people, young people, and minorities, undermining public health.
In recent years, soda consumption has slowed, leading many to chronicle its demise. A recent New York Times piece argued that the industry might still win battles, but it's losing the war. Such a disastrous time for an industry as ruthless as the soda industry, however, has only brought forth some of its most valiant—and deplorable—efforts.
The truth is that whatever happens going forward, as Coca-Cola and Pepsico struggle to ensure the longevity of their carbonated drinks here in the United States and elsewhere, it should come as little surprise given what the industry has done in the past.
I spoke with Nestle to pick her brain about how the soda industry has gotten its way and learn more about her new book. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
We are drinking less soda. That’s been well documented. But we still drink a lot of soda. Is that right?
On a per capita basis there are a couple countries in Latin America that drink more soda. But what’s interesting about the consumption is that half the population in America doesn’t drink it at all. So whenever you see consumption figures you’ve really got to double them if you want a sense of what people who drink soda drink on average.
So, these messages about drinking less soda are only catching on with half of the population?
Well, here’s what the breakdown looks like. This is what we know:
Educated, wealthier people are the ones who avoid it. These are the healthiest people in society, and the healthiest people in society don’t drink soda. They either don’t touch it, or drink it in extremely small amounts.
There’s a table from an industry publication that lays out who drinks soda. Males drink more than females. Younger people drink more than older people. Single people drink more than those who are married. High school graduates drink more than college graduates. Blue collar workers drink more than white collar workers. Hispanics and African Americans drink more than whites and Asians. And people from the South drink more than do people in the Northeast.
Then you have the amounts. As I said before, half of the population doesn’t drink any soda. A quarter of the population drinks more than one twelve ounce can each day. Twenty percent of the population has between more than one and four cans. And five percent has more than four cans each day.
The thing is, I’m pretty sure those numbers are underestimates, because there are people who drink the stuff all day long. I mean, I think that’s amazing.
Let's talk about your new book. Millions of Americans buy soda every day. They choose to drink it. Why are they choosing to drink it?
I mean, most of it is marketing. Brilliant marketing. I have just come back from the World of Coca-Cola exhibit in Atlanta, and it's breathtaking. If there's one thing I learned from doing the research for this book is how extraordinarily comprehensive the marketing is around soda. I hadn't appreciated that before.
This is a strategy that encompasses every possible way in which you can reach people. And you know, you reach people emotionally. They do, I mean. They show a movie at this place, and let me tell you there's not a dry eye in the house. Everybody is so moved by the kinds of things that are exhibited, which have nothing to do with Coca-Cola, except for the fact that at the end of the videos there are people drinking soda. It's just an amazing document.
The advertisements are designed to sell happiness. They're not selling a drink. But on an emotional level you attach to it.
And it's so pervasive that you don't even notice it. You're not supposed to notice it. If you start putting your critical thinking cap on and looking at all the places you see subtle or not so subtle marketing for Coca-Cola and Pepsi, you're kind of stunned by how much of it there is. But otherwise it's just kind of there. And you don't notice it, save for on some kind of subliminal level. We don't like to talk about subliminal levels, because we think we're completely rational actors in all of this. But the soda companies know better, and they use that to their advantage.
That is, largely, the reason why we love soda so much.
How far back does this hypnosis go? When did it start? Can you talk a bit about how Coca-Cola and Pepsi became symbols of America.
It started early on, with very small amounts of soda. It was never a problem when the bottles were only 6.5 ounces. People didn't have much money then. Even if you were buying them for a nickel, it was still a considerable cost.
But even in the early years of the 20th century, the companies were producing vast numbers of tchotchkes. There was an extraordinary number of items that were given out. So there were tangible objects attached to the Coca-Cola logo that people started collecting very early on. The check out line at World of Coca-Cola today is still brimming with people. You could furnish a house with Coca-Cola logoed items.
They started doing this very early and it was fun and wholesome and healthy. That went on all the way up to the second World War, at which point Coca-Cola did something even more brilliant, which was that it partnered with the army to provide Coca-Cola to soldiers anywhere in the world. And as a result of that partnership, the military actually paid for the transportation of Coca-Cola and helped them build bottling plants. It was completely embedded in military culture, so that by the time soldiers came back from World War II, Coca-Cola was part of the allied effort to win the war. That was pretty clever.
The astonishing thing about the World of Coca-Cola is that you pay a fee to go into it. People sit there and watch advertisements for hours without blinking. And they do it willingly! That's a feat.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi haven't just built up their brands over the years. They've also been masterful about defending them. Lately, that has been warding off health and obesity. How have they done that?
Well at first they denied that their product was at all responsible for the rise in obesity in the United States. They've literally gone through many of the stages of death and dying. First they denied. Then they realized they couldn't straight out deny it. Now, over the past ten years or so, Coca-Cola at least has disclosed to the securities and exchange commission that obesity is the number one threat to their profits. They make it very clearly to health advocates and government agencies.
One of the more troubling aspects about the way in which they've advertised is how they target specific groups. The first is children, which you talk about in your book. Can you elaborate a little?
The companies have pledged not to market under the age of 12 on children's television programming. And by all accounts they're adhering to that. But that doesn't mean they're not marketing to children.
The easiest ways to see this is to look at the collection of objects that Coca-Cola makes for sale, and how many of them are aimed at children. They're not making baby bottles anymore, but they did. If you go to the Coca-Cola store, there are loads of items that are specifically tailored to kids.
There's also a tremendous amount of marketing to teenagers. They see sports and music figures, as well as celebrities that they see on television, aligned with these brands. So it's really not possible to draw a line at an age. Much of the marketing is aimed directly at teenagers, but it spills over, and the companies know this. They also know that the earlier they get people on board, the more likely it is that they will have a lifetime customer.
The other group that they target are the poor and minorities. They're more likely than any other demographic to drink soda. Is that right?
Many other groups drink Coke and Pepsi, but the groups that are their core customers are young men and, in general, minorities. They have a higher consumption than any other demographic. But soda consumption also tracks with low income, and low education.
The minority situation is very interesting, because of the history, part of which I recount in the book. Before the night he died, Martin Luther King Jr. called for a boycott of Coca-Cola, because the company wasn't hiring African Americans. That's no longer the case—very much the opposite, in fact. The soda industry employs and serves millions of African Americans today. You have to understand that history to understand why the big African American and Hispanic organizations supported the soda industry when Michael Bloomberg put a cap on the sizes of sodas in New York City, and why that's significant.
Are there parallels between the soda industry and the cigarette industry?
Oh, I mean, absolutely. Both of them are selling a product that’s not good for health. Now, cigarettes are much worse. But they aren’t good.
The message for cigarettes is stop smoking, and put cigarette companies out of business. The message for soda, however, is for people to drink a whole lot less. And stop the companies from marketing their products to kids and other vulnerable populations. It’s a much more complicated message, but a lot of what the soda industry is doing is extremely similar to what the tobacco industry was doing back when it was fighting concerns about the health effects of tobacco use.
What sort of parallels are we talking about here?
Well, firstly, you deflect attention from the product. You talk about hydration, you talk about exercise, you fund a bunch of community health organizations. I remember when Philip Morris used to do that. They funded all of these arts organizations.
Coca-Cola funds hundreds of organizations. They’ve just been forced to reveal that, and the list is astonishing. As I like to say, you scroll and scroll through the list, and you’re still only on the Ds, you’ve still got the rest of the alphabet to go. You can’t believe the number of organizations that get money from them. And that buys silence from them, it deflects criticism, and it puts those organizations in a very difficult position when it comes to making health recommendations about soda drinking.
So, I mean, that’s what a classic conflict of interest looks like.
All of those are things that the tobacco industry did as well. But, of course, there are tons of behind the scenes things that have gone on that people never see. You never see the lobbying, you never see the funding of really anti-health public organizations, such as the Center for Consumer Freedom, which came out very strongly against the Bloomberg soda cap in New York. We don’t know who funded it, because the group operates in secret, but the American Beverage Association must have been behind that. You just don’t see the ugly stuff.
I’ve ended up feeling like the soda industry was two completely different companies, entirely schizophrenic within the organization. On the one hand, all about love and happiness; on the other, all about doing every single hardball thing they could do to make sure that people don’t fight them or do anything to promote drinking less soda.
Nobody is worried about an occasional 7.5 ounce soda. It’s the quantity that’s the problem. And the quantity is of course what makes profits for everyone involved.
What would worry the average consumer the most if they were made aware of it? About how the soda industry gets its way?
Well, probably, how extraordinarily focused this industry is on getting people to consume more of its products. The extraordinary sense of focus.
There’s this kind of false sense of agency on the side of soda drinkers, right? We think we decided to love soda, but really we were told to.
I mean, yes, exactly. America fell in love without even realizing it.
The revelations this summer about Coca-Cola’s funding of researchers to talk about exercise instead of diet gave a big shock to a lot of people I know. People tell me that they were really shocked by this. So that’s a revelation for people.
The food industry isn’t alone in this. But the food industry is unique in that we need food, we have to consume it to live. So you don’t expect food companies to be behaving like tobacco companies or like the gun lobby, or any other of these heavy-hitting industries. You don’t expect that. And it feels like a betrayal.
That was the big take-home lesson for me from this book. These companies are acting just the same, for the same reason, but at the expense of public health. People are drinking so much of this, on top of diets that already aren’t healthy and have too many calories.