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The New Policy Battlefield: All Eyes On Coca-Cola And Social Media PR

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If you want to see how future national policy wars will be fought, then keep your eye on the Coca-Cola Company and the American Beverage Association. Over the next few years sugar will become the new tobacco -- even as they try to quash the movement before it gets going.

"Fructose has nothing to do with obesity" is looking like the "cigarettes don't cause cancer" debate for the 21st Century. Battle lines have been drawn; the fighting has started; the idea of a sugar tax has been getting more and more attention (in CA, NY, MA, MS, among others); and now that the First Lady has made obesity a national issue (calling out high-fructose corn syrup [HFCS] by name), the fighting will only get more intense.

Here we have a terrific case study in the making: the anatomy of a true 21st Century national PR/policy campaign (FYI ... the bit about Coke comes at the end):

First Step: Fill The Coffers

The American Beverage Association, one of the primary conduits of sugar into the American bloodstream, is amassing a war chest that's unprecedented in its history.

Last year its lobbying budget swelled from a modest $1 million a year in 2006, 2007, 2008, all the way up to an eye-popping $20 million for FY 2009, with $17 million of that coming in the period October 2009 through January 2010. (According to the U.S. Senate LDA disclosure database.)

What are they getting ready for? All out war.

Step Two: Craft Your Messages

The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) made a good start with its "Sweet Surprise" website and ad campaign. The campaign tells us that high-fructose corn syrup is no worse for you than sugar. Which is like saying heroin is no more addictive than cocaine. But hooray for the effort at clarification.

And while corn refiners were busy on the biochemistry front, the American Beverage Association took a different tack. They added the tax issue to the "education" effort. Their message is that you can't tax people into better health. That's the role of education ... helping people make better, smarter choices.

Seems like a reasonable position until you recognize that if the corn refiners succeed in their propaganda war, then refined sugar will remain ubiquitous and "educated" people will still make the same bad choices as before. See how nicely those two initiatives fit together?

The two-pronged approach is actually quite smart: While the aim of the overall program is to avoid taxation on sugar and sugar-heavy products, that goal can't be achieved unless people believe that sugar isn't bad for you -- or at a minimum that it's "not that bad for you."

Without a benign public profile, all those sugar-heavy industries would have lost much of their defense against additional taxation. And with hundreds of industries, trillions of dollars, and millions of jobs on the line, we just can't have that. So...

Step Three: "Educate"

Part A of the education program is getting your key representatives out there to talk up your messages. Like this webinar by President of the Corn Refiners Association Audrae Erickson, which is currently up on the website of Supply Side, one of the largest trade shows for the food additives industry (registration required). The goal is to leverage self-interest to recruit key supporters to the cause.

Part B is to get a Spokes-Guru. It appears that the corn refiners have gotten themselves a guy by the name of John S. White, an industry consultant who does business as White Technical Research and brings over 20 of experience in "nutritive sweeteners." (He co-hosted the webinar with Ms. Erickson.) Expect to see a lot of Mr. White blogging, writing articles, lecturing, appearing at government hearings and on TV morning shows as an "independent" analyst.

Part C is to have a whole book of half-true talking points that you can use to coax or cudgel your audience -- as required.

Messages like "a calorie is a calorie." In energy content yes. But not metabolically. A calorie of glucose metabolizes differently and in different parts of the body than fructose, with very different results.

Step Four: AstroTurf

The Beverage folks are spearheading an effort called Americans Against Food Taxes, at the charmingly named URL "nofoodtaxes.com." According to the group's profile on the site:

Americans Against Food Taxes is a coalition of concerned citizens -- responsible individuals, financially strapped families, small and large businesses in communities across the country -- opposed to the Government's proposed tax hike on food and beverages, including soda, juice drinks, and flavored milks. The coalition has twin primary aims: 1) To promote a healthy economy and healthy lifestyles by educating Americans about smart solutions that rely upon science, economic realities and common sense; and 2) To prevent the enactment of this regressive and discriminatory tax that will not teach our children how to have a healthy lifestyle, and will have no meaningful impact on child behavior or public health, but will have a negative impact on American families struggling in this economy.

"A coalition of concerned citizens." Doesn't that sound so ... grassrootsy? And if that's not enough, check out these background images lifted from the site:

2010-02-21-NFT_image_3smiles.jpg

2010-02-21-NFT_image_bluesky.jpg

2010-02-21-NFT_image_football.jpg

2010-02-21-NFT_image_studygroup.jpg

Not a fat kid in the bunch. All beautiful white teeth. Great skin. Presumably they guzzle soda all day, and still they all look like the pretty, carefree, all-American teenager we all want to be.

And speaking of non-pimply teens ... why is an anti-taxation website targeting 14-19 year olds? Because the Beverage Association believes 14-19 year olds are experts on tax policy? Because they're the next generation of Alex P. Keatons? Hell no. It's because kids are the primary market for soda and other sweetened drinks.

In reality the "nofoodtax" group is bankrolled by more than 400 of the biggest names in food production and distribution, including:

  • National Association of Convenience Stores
  • Corn Refiners Association
  • American Beverage Association
  • Grocery Manufacturers Association
  • National Supermarkets Association
  • Florida Chamber of Commerce
  • Georgia Agribusiness Council
  • National Association of Theater Owners
  • National Retail Federation

It even includes these unlikely groups:

U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Federation, Hispanic Institute, The Hispanic Media Council, National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, National Hispanic Leadership Agenda ...

Even the National Hispanic Medical Association! A medical association? Really?

How on earth did a medical association get behind a campaign to defend our kids' right to guzzle sugar? This is where we get to the part about The Coca-Cola Company.

Step Five: Mobilize Your "Communities"

Coca-Cola invests millions in Social Media. The company is so far ahead of the curve that it's getting top billing at this week's Ragan Communication's Social Media Conference and is even hosting the event at its Atlanta headquarters. (Feb 22-24).

And this, I believe, is going to be the most interesting part of the policy debate to watch: the Social Media mobilization. It will be the first real test of a corporation's ability to use social media PR not to sell product, but to mount a substantive defense of its business in a bare-knuckled policy fight.

Which brings us to the Hispanic Medical Association ... this article from L.A. Times reports that as part of its "minority marketing" efforts, Coke gives money to a lot of the Latin organizations mentioned above and even has executives on some of their Boards.

And a reporter from Minn Post confirmed with the LAT reporter that something got left out of his story: Bill Clinton spoke out against the sugar tax, but when the reporter checked the donor list for the Clinton Foundation: he found that Coke had given $5 million. Coke is even getting its workers into the act by protesting local sugar taxes.

Yeah so what. Most of this is old hat. No? Well, it is and it isn't.

Back in 2007, the head of Coke's PR department gave a presentation to the Georgia Chapter of the PR Society of America. In that presentation he showed the following graphic. (via O'Dwyer's, subscription required)

2010-02-21-0816coke_safe_water_graphic.jpg

The key thing that's different today is that Social Media PR will give Coke the tools necessary to unite and mobilize all of its "communities" in business, government and civil society all at once in ways that "marketers" never imagined: as a PR army focused on fending off a threat to its business.

It will take the form of Facebook and Twitter and MySpace; contests, pages, groups, petitions, ringtones, and iPhone apps; it will be micro-targeted regionally, by age, by employment, by product preference, and by lifestyle choices like recreations and hobbies.

In short: this engine was built for marketing products. But now, it is about to be geared up and mobilized for another purpose: war. Specifically, to protect the profit interests of the corporation and maintain a business model that is potentially harmful to the "communities" that will be defending it.

The nofoodtax website has minimal Social Media tools, but it pales in comparison to what a pioneer like Coke brings to the effort ... not to mention Pepsi. From a PR point of view it will be a fascinating thing to watch.

If you're a parent worried about your obese pre-diabetic teenager ... I'd have to imagine it'll be infuriating.

A Sugar Addict Confesses

I am a sugar addict. I love the stuff. Can't get enough of it. Takes all my willpower to walk past the dessert tray in the company cafeteria. I tend to cycle up and down and am currently about 180 pounds at 5'10" tall. This is my tipping point. The pants are a bit tight. The face feels a bit fleshy around the jowls ... All the warning signs that I'm about to pork out. And yes even with a regular work-out routine and diet of mostly whole foods, sugar still does me in. (Could it be the eggs, butter and flour that the sugar is packaged with? You think?)

And yes, I love Coke. A big frosty glass of Coke with loads of ice. I like to wait until it's so cold it's almost frozen. And then I take little sips. Letting the caramel taste wash over my tongue before I let it slide down. So freakin' delicious.

But I also know it's a potential killer. I say "potential" because there are a lot of caveats to that statement. To get an idea of the content and temperature of the debate, do two things:

  1. Watch this video (link) ... in which Dr. Lustig makes a pretty compelling case that the metabolic pathways for fructose can create exactly the physiological effects that are the hallmarks of metabolic syndrome. (It's about 90 minutes)
  2. Then read this post AND all the comments (link). In the comments Mr. Aragon debates Lustig. And Aragon makes a pretty compelling case that despite the chemistry, clinical research has yet to definitively establish a causative link between fructose and obesity. (Took me about 1 hour to read all the comments)

Notwithstanding the histrionics, both camps seem to agree on a couple of key points: the health effects of fructose are dose and context dependent; and excessive consumption of refined fructose really is quite bad for you.

So a few cents extra to make me think twice before I slug down a 16-ouncer is probably a very good thing. And if you don't drink soda then why the hell do you care if I'm paying a few cents extra in tax?

And if it makes soda more expensive, and kids drink less of it, isn't that the whole point? Foes of the tax need to explain how it's a "burden" on families to drink water and eat fresh fruit, as opposed to buying expensive sodas and sugar-laden, over-processed foods in a box. How can reducing sickness and healthcare costs be a burden?

It can't.

Who's Lobbying for You? Mobilize Yourself!

And this is why a Social Media PR campaign on sugar will be so interesting to watch. All our incentive is to eat less refined fructose. Food companies have no such incentive. All their incentive is to get us to eat more of it.

To food companies, refined fructose (especially HFCS) is an important competitive advantage, in terms of taste, texture, shelf life, cost, among other things. It helps them sell. That's why they want to put more of it in more products, to get you to buy more of those products today than you did yesterday, last week, last month, last year. It's how they grow revenues and profits and generate returns for shareholders.

Their goals are to sell more and keep barriers at bay.

And to the latter point, Coke works with power-player Glover Park Group (GPG), a "strategic communications" firm in DC. It's no coincidence they picked GPG, which has had two consecutive assignments with the Grocery Manufacturers Association on ethanol ... GPG knows corn ... and the Senators that support it!

For their part, the Corn Refiners have retained a lobbying firm called DTB Associates. Their home page explains what they do:

We are committed to helping our clients find and use the most effective legal, lobbying, or negotiating tools to respond to whatever obstacles stand in the way of achieving their objectives in the global marketplace.

The goal of food companies in the "global marketplace" is to sell more product, and if it takes more refined sugar to do that, then that's what they'll do.

It's why corn refiners want to sell you sugar ... packaged food companies want to sell you more sugar ... and grocery stores want to sell you more sugar ... beverage makers want to sell you sugar ... bakers and cereal makers and dairy producers and convenience store owners and Burger King and the Hospitality Association and vending machine operators and movie theaters owners ... they all want to sell you sugar ... as much of it as you'll eat.

Preferably a hell-of-a-lot more than you need. And preferably in food that you don't even know it's in. That's their goal in the "global marketplace" and they're not going to let any "obstacle" stand in their way, not even your health.

Will they be successful in harnessing Social Media PR to get customers (who should be eating less sugar) to mobilize in "communities" in defense of companies who want customers to do just the opposite and eat more sugar?

We'll come back to this in 12 months or so and deconstruct it.

In the meantime, when you get hit up to participate in a fructose community mobilization, before you dive in, ask yourself: when it comes to the negative effects of sugar on your health ... Who's really lobbying for your interests? Coke?

(Cross posted at LiteralMayhem.com)