I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I read that the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission had deemed the Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, Queens, so worthy of permanent preservation that it was considering it for landmark status.
Granted, the neon monument has been part of the East River landscape for the past 80 years. And yes, there is precedent for landmarking a sign rather than a building. Pine Bluff, Ark., chose to landmark a McDonald’s sign, and Cambridge, Mass., preserved a Shell Oil sign.
But the fact is that the Pepsi-Cola sign is a highly visible expression of soda industry marketing. The sign advertises a sugar-sweetened beverage — precisely what the city Health Department has, with good reason, been working hard to discourage New Yorkers from consuming in large quantities.
For the past few years, subway poster campaigns have featured the astonishing amounts of sugar contained in carbonated sodas — close to a teaspoon per ounce. They have also illustrated how this excessive sugar turns to fat in the body, how sugary beverages raise the risk for type 2 diabetes, and how much walking it takes to work off the calories in a single 20-ounce drink — a trek from Union Square to Brooklyn.
And let’s not forget former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ultimately unsuccessful though valiant attempt to set a cap of 16 ounces on sugary beverages sold in places under city jurisdiction.
That particular tactic was hugely controversial. But nobody can seriously dispute that sugary drinks contribute to obesity and its consequences.
Pepsi may be the underdog — Americans drink more Coke — but it is a very large runnerup in the sugary drink category. Its revenues in 2015 amounted to $63 billion worldwide.
Pepsi is Big Soda incarnate. It works hard to maintain that position, spending more than $200 million a year advertising Pepsi-Cola alone. It is also Big Food. Altogether it spends about $2 billion a year on worldwide marketing for all of its products, including Frito-Lay snack foods and other brands.
To generate sales, Pepsi relentlessly targets its marketing to teenagers and young adults and, as part of that approach, generously pays sports and music figures to endorse its products.
We’ve all seen the Super Bowl ads. We know about the reported $50 million deal with Beyoncé. And like Coca-Cola, although not quite to the same extent, PepsiCo funds health organizations such as the American heart and cancer associations, and contributes to health programs at universities such as Yale. All of this can buy loyalty from health professionals, and also silence from them about the role of soft drinks in health.
Soda advertising is so much a part of the American landscape that most of us don’t even notice it anymore. It is just there. And that’s how the company intends it. As an industry executive once told me, effective advertising is supposed to slip below the radar of critical thinking.
I’m guessing that’s what’s happening with the Pepsi-Cola sign. Its significance as advertising for a sugary drink — one best consumed infrequently and in small amounts — has become unnoticeable. To the landmarks folks, therefore, this is just a quaint piece of history — not an active, pulsating sign promoting something dangerous to human health.
But landmarking the Pepsi sign, which is visible to millions of New Yorkers and tourists every single day, would engage New Yorkers as formal partners in marketing sugary drinks.
I can’t help but remember the Camel cigarette sign in Times Square, for years blowing smoke rings. Would today’s Landmarks Preservation Commission want that billboard preserved for eternity? Or would it blush at the thought of promoting and sustaining an icon of corporate marketing, and of an unhealthful product at that?