The Berkeley Media Studies Group — part of the Public Health Institute — is one of our favorite non-profit organizations.
Last week, BMSG’s Strategic Communications Specialist Fernando Quintero published an insightful post titled “Lessons in communication strategy from Big Soda,” in which he highlights the many communication strategies Big Soda (mainly Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, both of which are Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics partners) employs to distract the public from concerns about soda’s detrimental effects on health.
- “We’re currently seeing striking similarities between Big Soda and Big Tobacco as the sugary drink industry works to combat mounting pressure from health advocates and the public at large for its major role in the national diabetes epidemic. I saw these similarities firsthand at a debate last month between Berkeley City Council member Laurie Capitelli, who is supporting a proposed penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages, and Matt Rodriguez, who was representing the soda industry.”
- “The following is a partial list of communication strategies that were employed by Rodriguez at the July 28 event. Some of these are effective tools that advocates can use as part of their arsenal. Others are just plain dirty, underhanded tactics that we wouldn’t suggest anyone emulate. However, we wanted to provide a brief glimpse into how big industry operates.”
- “Use divisive tactics: As Big Soda did in Richmond when that city proposed a similar measure, Rodriguez injected racial and socioeconomic overtones into the debate and framed the soda tax as a regressive policy that would harm low-income communities. “Why put this on the backs of those who can least afford it?” Rodriguez asked.”
- “Confuse your audience: Rodriguez stated the measure was “not well-crafted” and “riddled with exemptions,” and in his best move of the day, he put up a slide presentation with several drink products and had audience members participate in an impromptu “what’s taxed, what’s not” game. It was a highly effective ploy as audience members struggled with identifying taxable versus non-taxable beverages.”
- “Rebut health claims: When the parallels between sugar and tobacco were pointed out (soda industry’s communication strategy notwithstanding), Rodriguez pulled another effective sound bite out of his hat: “Cigarettes by nature are cancer-causing. There is no safe level of cigarette smoking,” he said. “But you can’t get second-hand soda.”
- “Pivot away from incriminating or negative questions: When asked by an audience member whether the soda industry cares about the health of Berkeley’s children, Rodriguez simply stated that he was asked to speak on the merits of the proposed policy, not the health of kids.”
- “Just as Rodriguez used tried and true communication tactics to try and win over audiences, health advocates can use media advocacy to fight fire with fire. Want a media bite that responds to the soda industry’s continued claims that sugary drinks cause no harm? “The only medical voice on the Big Soda side of the debate is Dr. Pepper” (Thanks to Jeff Ritterman, Richmond City Council member).”