The Soda Empire Strikes Back, Um, Awkwardly.
by Chris Manley
The soda industry is abuzz (there’s a Simpson’s joke in there somewhere) since May 31st, when, as The Economist joked, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg “channeled his inner action hero” and announced a ban on sugary-drinks-not-made-with-milk-or-alcohol–larger-than-16oz-as-long-as-they’re-not-sold-in-grocery-stores. If the ban sounds confusingly specific, it is. Which makes Bloomberg’s action-hero explanation even more ironic: “New York is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something. I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do.”
You’d think this would be relatively easy for a large, well-funded union of megacorporation superfriends to fight. Especially one that has, lately, taken decent steps to improve its reputation. Before the ban was announced, the American Beverage Association (a trade group representing, visually at least, Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and, inexplicably, Sunny Delight) began running an ad that does a reasonably good job of explaining that they offer “more choices and smaller portions with fewer calories.”
Here, the message is just about all anyone wants or expects from an industry that sells carbonated sugar. Only a zealous few in the Bay Area are awaiting the release of Coke III, Now with Wheatgrass! Just put the ability to choose an 8oz can instead of a 24oz SupaChugga in people’s hands, and they’ll be satisfied.
Unfortunately, Bloomberg’s opponents seem to have chosen to hit back fast rather than smart. In the past two weeks we’ve seen two new ads, neither of which strikes what ad savants at Joe Slade White and Company would call a “responsive chord.”
The first ad is an alarmingly tasteless mash-up of Mrs. Doubtfire and Attack of the 50-foot Woman. This is not an ABA ad, but it’s an ABA problem. It’s indicative of what happens when arguments spring from frustration instead of understanding. In it, Mayor Bloomberg towers over the NYC skyline, wearing a matronly dress. The ad’s text plays on the Bloomberg-as-Nanny joke repeatedly, and threatens the soda ban as the first step down a slippery slope that may next include regulating pizza slice width. The ad comes from something called the Center for Consumer Freedom, which, granted, mainly publishes op-eds in the Washington Times.
While many joke about Nanny Bloomberg, this ad does little more than ridicule him as a person. It ignores the fact that many reasonable people do worry about industries like soda manufacturing turning profits while passing long-term costs like healthcare on to everybody.
At best, this sort of ad rallies your base. It does little to recruit people who don’t already agree with you. And despite not being an ABA ad, since no one knows what the Center for Consumer Freedom is, this rather, um, memorable image will simply be associated with the whole fight against Bloomberg’s ban.
Worst of all, it makes Bloomberg look like the reasonable one.
But a second ad, from the ABA, may actually be just as damaging to the Association’s cause. It makes an argument our clients really, really want to make all the time: Take a look at our facts! Aren’t these great facts?
“Are soda and sugar-sweetened beverages driving obesity?” asks a disembodied voice; disembodied, perhaps, because absolutely no one uses the words “sugar-sweetened beverages” unless they work in the beverage industry.
“Not according to the facts,” answers an equally disembodied pedant. The ad goes on to enumerate FACTS (would they be less factual in lowercase?) with all the nuance of a high school debate team. Chief among these facts: “According to the CDC, sugar-sweetened beverages make up just 7% of the average diet.”
Bam! Your move, Bloomberg.
There isn’t enough internet to list all the reasons why this argument isn’t very effective. Let’s look at two of them.
First, for every fact you have, people who disagree with you or who are on the fence have access to just as many opposing facts—or “facts”—often found in emails with subject lines such as “Fwd: Fwd: Re: Fwd: Coke can dissolve a tooth in 15 hours???????”
Most important, real public policy debates are—sadly? inevitably?—not decided on the basis of The Facts. They’re decided based on people’s emotional reactions to the whole ocean of arguments being poured on them every day.
Emotionally, obesity is becoming an enemy. This ad highlights the fact that we could get rid of 7% of it just by cutting out empty sugar calories. While few people will actually do that, it’s easy to think of it as a good idea, which makes it easier to sympathize with Mayor Bloomberg’s desperate talk of “doing something.”
The American Beverage Association, and the industry it represents, seems to have public sentiment on their side for once. The jury is still out on whether they’re trying to keep it. They can do so by taking a deep breath and continuing with the same, responsible message they were focusing on before the ban was proposed. Indeed, for the past several years they’ve been giving consumers more and healthier choices.
How is Bloomberg’s proposed ban on choice a fair or suitable response?