This week on Obesity Panacea we’re looking at the new series on “Big Food” published by PLoS Medicine (the same PLoS that publishes PLoS Blogs, the host of Obesity Panacea). Yesterday we looked at the evidence linking sugar sweetened beverages with the rise in obesity rates in North America.
Today we’ll be looking at the corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs of Big Food, and compare them to those of Big Tobacco. For those new to the term, here is a brief description of CSRs from wikipedia:
The goal of CSR is to embrace responsibility for the company’s actions and encourage a positive impact through its activities on the environment, consumers, employees, communities, stakeholders and all other members of the public sphere who may also be considered as stakeholders.
In their new paper, Lori Dorfman and colleagues look at the public outreach of Big Food (mainly Coca Cola and PepsiCo) and compare it with previous programs run by tobacco companies such as Philip Morris.
During the 1950s, landmark scientific studies linked smoking and disease, and popular media disseminated the research
. The tobacco industry and its products began to suffer from reduced social acceptability and were targeted for tighter state and federal regulation [35,36]. By the late 1990s, tobacco companies faced a series of challenges, including disclosures from industry whistleblowers and formerly secret internal documents, congressional hearings, a civil racketeering lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) with 46 state attorneys general compensating the states for Medicaid payments resulting from smoking-related illnesses.
Reacting to these pressures, the tobacco companies all began to implement CSR programs to improve their corporate and product images and to prevent legal and regulatory action [37,38,39].
In 1999, industry leader Philip Morris (PM) launched the industry’s most ambitious and visible CSR program, which it internally labeled ‘‘PM21’’ . In confidential documents, PM described the program as ‘‘a multifaceted, cross functional effort to change the public’s perception of Philip Morris and to improve the public’s attitudes toward the company and the people who work for it’’ . Using paid advertisements and a dedicated website, PM21 highlighted the company’s charitable contributions to causes including homelessness, domestic abuse, and the arts [42,43,44]. This continued a previous strategy to co-opt interest groups that might oppose tobacco industry programs [45,46,47,48,49,50]. While the PM21 campaign improved outlooks among the small segment of the public that had no preexisting opinions about the company, the campaign hardened the opinions of the large majority who already held negative views of PM and the tobacco industry [42,51].
How does Big Food compare with Big Tobacco?
1. Big Food and Big Tobacco both aim to shift the focus from corporate to personal responsibility [emphasis mine]:
By highlighting the importance of consumers making healthy choices instead of the companies’ roles in creating an unhealthy environment, soda company and tobacco industry CSR campaigns emphasize personal, instead of corporate, responsibility. For instance, the tobacco industry’s ‘‘youth smoking prevention’’ programs appeared to combat youth smoking, but instead placed responsibility on parents and children for the decision to smoke [55,56].
Similarly, in its ‘‘Balanced Living’’ message on Live Positively, Coca-Cola suggests that the company is responsible only for providing health information to consumers, such as through the ‘‘Clear on Calories’’ labels that show calorie counts on the front
of bottles or cans. The company suggests that health is ultimately up to consumers, because with new labels, ‘‘you’ll know exactly how many calories are in a beverage before making a purchase—whether at a store, one of our vending machines or fountain machines—making it easier for you to make informed choices and live a healthy, active lifestyle’’ . PepsiCo’s advertisement for the UK’s Change4Life campaign likewise insists that ‘‘active parents make active kids’’ .
2: Big Food and Big Tobacco CSRs both seek to prevent regulation:
As CSR campaigns can improve a firm’s standing with the public and policymakers, they are potentially a powerful mechanism
to forestall regulation . British American Tobacco, for example, used CSR to reestablish political influence with the UK Department of Health, with which its relationship had deteriorated .
While the Refresh Project and Live Positively have not stated such goals outright—and we have no cache of internal soda industry documents to investigate for such explicit rationales—the campaigns employ the very tactics that companies use to influence the public and policymakers . For instance, the tobacco industry used donations to cultural organizations to help enlist their support against a proposed public smoking
ban in New York City . From that perspective, PepsiCo’s Refresh Project represents $20 million in donations to community groups who publicly praise the company , and may be recruited to help oppose future regulatory initiatives.
Moreover, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are members of the American Beverage Association (ABA), an industry trade group that has aggressively lobbied against taxes on SSBs .
Following a trademark tobacco industry tactic, the soda companies and the ABA are members of the front group
‘‘Americans Against Food Taxes,’’ which, despite its name, is primarily composed of food and beverage companies. The group has aired a $10 million TV campaign against taxing beverages and promoting individual responsibility as the remedy for
3. One big difference – tobacco CSRs never explicitly tried to increase the bottom line by attracting young consumers
In contrast to the actions of Big Tobacco, soda industry CSR initiatives are explicitly and aggressively profit-seeking. Soda companies use CSR to tout their concern for the health and well-being of youth while simultaneously cultivating
brand loyalty. The stated goal of PepsiCo’s flagship Refresh Project is to increase longterm sales [73,89] by engaging youth in the initiatives  and to build loyalty by associating PepsiCo with benevolent, worthwhile ventures. According to PepsiCo, after just nine months, the Refresh Project is an overwhelming success: ‘‘With over 2.8 billion (with a ‘‘B’’!) earned media impressions, the project exceeded our internal benchmarks early in the year and we’ve seen an improvement in key brand health metrics. Crucial to PepsiCo’s bottom line, when Millennials, the campaign’s key demographic target, know about the Project their purchase intent goes up’’ . Such soda CSR programs focus strategically on this cohort of 11- to 31-year-olds  to build brand preferences from an early age and create a climate in which drinking soda is viewed as a natural, frequent activity.
Soda companies also benefit from sponsorship of youth-oriented community organizations in ways that are unavailable to tobacco companies, which must avoid appearing to attract young people as a condition of the MSA . Soda companies’ marketing to youth is not similarly constrained, and soda CSR campaigns target youth in schools or community centers. The use of cause marketing and new media facilitates the companies’ connection to youth. For instance, Coke uses its Spark Your Park program, with heavy emphasis on Facebook and Twitter engagements online, to promote its Sprite product while donating funds to neglected recreation facilities . Moreover, these CSR campaigns provide a mechanism for
soda companies to circumvent pledges not to market in schools [93,94,95]. While soda companies agreed to remove full calorie drinks from U.S. schools, CSR programs like the Refresh Project keep the brand in front of young people with promises of grants for children’s schools, parks, or other programs.
To recap the posts from yesterday and today:
1. The products of Big Food (especially sugar sweetened beverages) are very likely contributing to increasing obesity rates.
2. Big Food is actively working to reposition themselves within the public sphere, and explicitly trying to avoid regulation that might hurt their bottom line, using tactics similar to those employed by the tobacco industry.
In light of these issues, come back tomorrow for a discussion of this paper, which looks at various approaches to engaging with Big Food in order to reduce the negative health impact of their products.