Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Soda and snack companies spend more of their budgets and time marketing to people of color, which may explain public-health disparities.
Chicago alderman George Cardenas introduced a proposal in late July to tax soda drinks. A few years ago, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted a similar plan, but going a step further by calling to ban soft drinks (over 16 ounces) from being sold in the city. Other cities have attempted similar measures, and one in Berkeley actually took effect this year. All of these plans have been proposed in the name of attempting to fighting obesity, diabetes, and creating better health outcomes for residents.
Beverage industry lobbyists, of course, are charged up for a fight against Cardenas’ soda-tax proposal and others like them, emboldened from defeating similar proposals in the past. The soda industry has consistently fought or bought off similar taxes and bans in plenty of other cities, often using the argument that their sugary drinks are not the culprit in poor health. Instead, say soda advocates, people should exercise more, or, get better educated, as Illinois Beverage Association Executive Director Jim Soreng recently said.
Gleaning further data on these issues is tough, though, as corporations that regularly dump millions into advertising campaigns to impress upon consumers that soft drinks are fine for their health. The same goes for companies that push junk food. And these campaigns fall hardest on black and Latino kids, toward whom corporations hyper-target their marketing, according to a new report from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.
According to researchers there, black children and teens are exposed to twice as many ads for soda, sugary drinks, and candy than white kids are. And this is not just about the amount of television watched between the races: Of the 267 food and beverage companies the Rudd Center analyzed, more than half (55 percent) spent more more than $100,000 in 2013 on ads that aired on networks with large black audiences, and a third of them spent at least $500,000 on black-targeted ads. Five companies spent more than $10 million targeting African-Americans, including Pepsi. Dr. Pepper Snapple Group also spent a larger than average amount of its advertising budgets on black audiences. Soda companies turned out to be not as bad as candy and gum brands, however, which disproportionately have aimed their marketing at black and Hispanic consumers.
The uneven rates of junk food and soda promotions appear to coincide with racially tied public-health issues when it comes to diabetes and weight-related illnesses: “[T]his research demonstrates that racial-ethnic targeted food marketing likely contributes to health disparities,” the report concludes.
The two matrices below show where major corporations fall in terms of advertising to minorities:
An August 9 article in The New York Times exposed that Coca-Cola has been funding scientists and non-profit advocacy centers to put out reports saying that a lack of exercise is the cause of bad health, not soda. The Coke-funded studies are the kinds of reports that lobbyists hold up when beating back city proposals to tax or ban the sugary stuff. As public-health lawyer Michele Simon told The New York Times, “Coca-Cola’s sales are slipping, and there’s this huge political and public backlash against soda, with every major city trying to do something to curb consumption. This is a direct response to the ways that the company is losing.”
Meanwhile, Wired reports that a soda tax in Mexico has been working, both in affecting health outcomes and as a revenue booster. The issue has served as a punchline on TV shows like Parks and Recreation, but as cities take a more serious look at this, corporations may find this a tougher problem to advertise their way out of. As the tobacco industry learned.