The Soda Industry’s Creepy Youth Campaign

by Anna Lappé

What is it about corporations trying to sound hip that so often hits the wrong note? It comes off like your mother ending a text with “LOL.” It doesn’t sound cool; it sounds out of touch. That’s just what I thought perusing the website of Mixify, a new marketing campaign by the American Beverage Association (ABA).

Launched earlier this year, Mixify promotes balance in what you “eat, drink and do.” Mixify, according to the site, is “like a balance wingman.” (Who knew balance needs a wingman?) “Balance” is defined as “crossing cats with dragons”; finding it will keep you “feeling snazzier than the emoji of the dancing lady in red.” Honestly, I’m not even sure exactly what that is supposed to mean, but you get the idea. It’s all about communicating that, dear (youthful) reader, we’re hip, we’re cool, we’re one of you — and we don’t want you to be worried about drinking our beverages.

As the beverage industry trade association, the ABA spends tens of millions of dollars every year to promote its members’ interests, from fighting taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages to stopping initiatives to get soda out of schools to pushing marketing campaigns such as this one. (It spent $62.5 million in 2013 alone.) Mixify is just one tactic it is deploying to try to fix a core image problem.

As part of this massive campaign — including interactive social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — Mixify is hitting the road with free events for teens in more than half a dozen cities around the country this summer. So what’s the problem with a little summer fun, a little “silent disco” in D.C. or outdoor games at a football field in Philly?

The problem is that soda is not innocuous. Sugar-sweetened beverages are tied to the biggest public health epidemic of our time: rising rates of diet-related illnesses.

Public relations campaigns such as these are designed to deflect concerns from a culprit of ill health — drinking soda — by promoting balance. Lori Dorfman, the head of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, noted the parallels between this strategy and the alcohol industry’s promotion of designated drivers: “Those campaigns actually promoted drinking. Some people called them designated drinker programs because they gave people permission to drink to excess if they weren’t driving — as if drinking and driving were the only problems related to alcohol,” she said. “Many alcohol companies created their own campaigns to look like good guys, but all their slogans encouraged drinking and never suggested that a designated driver should have nothing to drink, with slogans like ‘Think when you drink’ and ‘Know when to say when.’”

The parallels between sugar-sweetened beverage marketing such as Mixify and Big Tobacco public relations are also striking, as Dorfman and others write in a recent paper in PLOS Medicine (PDF). Like the tobacco industry before it, the sugar-sweetened beverage industry is employing “elaborate, expensive, multinational corporate social responsibility campaigns,” they write. “These campaigns echo the tobacco industry’s use of [such campaigns] as a means to focus responsibility on consumers rather than on the corporation, bolster the companies’ and their products’ popularity and to prevent regulation.”

Mixify is troubling, too, in how the ABA uses it to tap young people to do the marketing for them. At each public event, Mixify engineers photo opportunities with Instagram and YouTube microcelebrities, turning “unsuspecting minors into unpaid conscripts,” said Jeff Cronin, the communications director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. At the Washington, D.C., Mixify event Cronin attended — as at, one presumes, all of them — every participant was consenting, whether they realized it or not, to be part of this marketing. A crowd notice posted at the perimeter read, “By entering this area, you irrevocably consent to … recordings of you … for worldwide exploitation, in perpetuity in any and all media, whether now known or hereafter devised, for any purpose whatsoever.” Cronin said, “These kids are unwittingly giving the American Beverage Association the right to use their images and recordings, turning them into an army of drones spreading the industry’s PR garbage on social media.”

This is particularly worrying because soda companies market heavily to youth of color, through celebrity endorsements, websites, advertisements and more — both alarming and irresponsible given that communities of color, especially black and Latino youths, are being disproportionately affected by diet-related illnesses. “African-Americans are 50 percent more likely to be obese and over twice as likely to die from diabetes as whites,” write the authors of “Selfish Giving,” a 2013 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (PDF), about the soda industry’s use of philanthropy to serve its business interests.

But it’s not surprising. This demographic is a growth sector. The authors of “Selfish Giving” quote Coca-Cola’s chief marketing officer, Bea Perez, who said, “We know that 86 percent of the growth through 2020 for Coca-Cola’s youth-target market will come from multicultural consumers, especially Hispanic, and focusing on this segment is critical to the company’s future growth.” It’s no wonder, then, that according to the Rudd Center, in 2013 black children and teens saw more than twice as many ads on television for sugary drinks and energy drinks than their white peers. No matter the medium, the imbalance remains. The Rudd Center also found that in the U.S., black youths were 34 percent more likely to visit the website of a sugary or energy drink brand than the national youth average.

Mixify’s timing is curious. In July we learned that deaths in Mexico from diabetes, cancer and heart disease tied to sugary drink consumption far outnumber deaths from violent crime in that country, according to research from Tufts University. In the wake of the landslide win for a soda tax in Berkeley, California, there are murmurings of other U.S. cities exploring taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages. And the consumption of soda is way down. New data show a major reduction in Americans’ soda consumption. In 1998 the average American purchased 40 gallons of soda a year, according to data analyzed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. By 2014 that figure dropped to 30 gallons. (Keep in mind that that’s still about 100 cups of sugar from soda per year.)

“The industry’s under siege,” said Cronin. “Consumers are fleeing from full-calorie carbonated soda, and public health officials are increasingly looking to drive consumption down further with taxes and other policies.”

According to the “deets” (yes, it reads “deets”) on the Mixify website, the tour heads next to Dallas, where kids can also be expected to be enlisted in this marketing campaign for a dying industry, with well-paid PR execs trying to hook the next generation on the sweet stuff.

Originally published in Al Jazeera America