An editor at the New York Times invited me to write an op-ed on the proposed landmarking of the East River Pepsi-Cola sign, but then said:
We’re not going to use this. People really love that Pepsi sign so much that they don’t want to hear arguments against it.
So I offered it to the Daily News. I’ve written for it before. Its editors are highly professional and a pleasure to work with. And it goes to an audience to which I do not usually have access. See what you think.
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?
In my book, I talk about research demonstrating that hardly anyone can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi, or between colas sweetened with table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. I thought it would be fun to double check.
We asked participants to taste 6 unlabeled soda samples.
The six choices: Coca-Cola, PepsiCola, Caleb soda, Coca-Cola Life, Mexican Coca-Cola, and a duplicate of Coca-Cola.
The idea was to see whether people could tell which was which and whether they could tell the difference between Coke made with high fructose corn syrup (regular Coke), table sugar (Mexican Coke), or Stevia (Coca-Cola Life).
38 people participated. Here are the results:
Coca-Cola: this was identified correctly by 14/38, but only 10 correctly identified the duplicate.
Mexican Coca-Cola: 4/38
Coca-Cola Life: 17/38
Caleb’s Cola: 29/38 (it’s color is distinctly different)
Only one person correctly identified all six. I, alas, only got one right—Caleb’s. It looks different and tastes less sweet.
The Pouring Rights contract —for a 1 time minimum $2 Million donation and yearly $125K donation— not only includes 80% access to all drinks sold on campus, naming rights for the sports stadiums (and scholarships, seats, etc), access to students and alum for social media campaigns, access to STUDENT-owned campus center, and on and on BUT also an endowed chair in the school of the sponsor’s choice. Pepsi Professor anyone?
She points out that “The students believe that the release of the RFP violated important shared governance agreements that guide the campus, and that it was intentionally kept very low profile.”
She also notes that since San Francisco’s soda tax campaign, several high profile policies limiting SSBs have been passed:
1) City of SF has passed 2 important pieces of legislation: warning label requirements on ads, ban on use of city funds to purchase ssbs (including the many contractors such as Department of Children Youth and Families), and ban on sub ads on city property
2) The SFUSD passed a comprehensive wellness policy which bans all sugary drinks sold or offered on school grounds including fundraisers/festivals/ and staff/teachers drinking.
3) Most major hospitals are SSB free INCLUDING all of UCSF campuses and our public hospital.
Essentially, SFSU and our City College Campuses are the only public spaces where SSBs are sold or advertised. So, we can’t let the SFSU administration go through with this, and this group of students from the Real Food Challenge SFSU are stepping up to fight back. Let’s join them and show our support! They have already organized demonstrations when PepsiCo and Coca-Cola were on campus for their presentations, but have much more planned. The also have a 15 page resolution that covers ALL the bases!
I will have more to say about this trip, but I’ll start with my obsession with sodas (because of my forthcoming book, Soda Politics): Does the U.S. embargo prevent sales of Coke and Pepsi in Cuba?
Based on research for the book, I know that Cuba is one of the last remaining countries in which Coke and Pepsi cannot be marketed. North Korea is another. Myanmar used to be in that category, but came out of it a couple of years ago.
So I was fascinated to see this street cart in Old Havana (Coke hecho en Mexico):
And in a small market near the Hotel Nacional (Pepsi bottled in El Salvador):
And in a suburban supermercado outside of Havana (3-liter Cokes from Mexico):
As for soda marketing, it’s only collectors’ items. These are on the wall of Paladar San Cristóbal, in Central Havana:
As I’ll discuss in later posts, these are harbingers of marketing to come.
The gist: Are the recent actions taken by food companies an indication that consumers are having an effect at the expense of science—and at the expense of focusing on more important food issues such as too much sugar, obesity, and diabetes?
He cited these recent events:
Tyson’s says it will phase out human antibiotics in broiler production.
McDonald’s says it will source chicken that has not been treated with antibiotics.
PepsiCo says it is taking aspartame out of its diet sodas (it’s the #1 reason given for not drinking diet cola).
In some ways, it’s a perfectly logical appointment. Before joining PepsiCo, Leftwich worked for Roberts as a legislative aide from 2005 to 2010 and as deputy staff director for the Ag Committee from 2011 to 2013.
The annual meeting of the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association, always provides an incredible exhibit of products from food companies—the latest in dietetic junk food and food company nutritional spin.
Knowing how much I enjoy these things, and that I am working on a book about food advocates and the soft drink industry (Oxford University Press, September 2015), several of my colleagues brought back souvenirs.
Functional foods (with “healthy” ingredients above and beyond what occurs naturally)
For Keurig brewing machines, a container of Fibersol Cran-Raspberry flavored instant tea mix, with soluble fiber added (is tea really a significant source of soluble fiber?).
MealEnders.com’s chocolate mint signaling lozenges, “an antidote to overeating.” If you feel that you are overeating, suck on one: “take control, curb appetite, get results” (if only).
A 6-ounce can of Kao Nutrition’s black coffee with 270 mg polyphenol (coffee chlorogenic acid), naturally present because the coffee was not brewed at high temperature (well, coffee is a plant extract, after all).
A pen with a pull-out section that gives the potassium content of commonly consumed foods (these come in other versions too, apparently).
Soda company propaganda
A brochure from PepsiCo’s Nutrition Team, HydrateNow. Gatorade, it points out, is 93% water (and the other 7%, pray tell?.
A pamphlet from PepsiCo on Calorie Balance: “many things influence your everyday nutrition. For maintaining a healthy weight, the most important factors are how many calories you eat and the total calories you use up” (but if those calories happen to be empty?).
A PepsiCo brochure on Diet Beverages for People with Diabetes (but it still is advertising Pepsi).
A list of PepsiCo drinks that meet the USDA’s nutrition standards for schools (a long list, alas).
A scientific paper, “What is causing the worldwide rise in body weight,” sponsored by Coca-Cola (Coke’s answer: lack of physical activity, of course.)
A poster from the American College of Cardiology, “Striking an energy balance,” sponsored in part by Coca-Cola. It says: “Drink water or no- or low-calorie beverages” (it does not say you should “Drink less soda”).
A pamphlet on National School Beverage Guidelines sponsored by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dr Pepper Snapple, and the American Beverage Association: “The beverage industry committed to bold change and then made it happen. Working with our school partners, we transformed the beverages available to students” (yes, but it doesn’t explain that public pressure forced them to do this).
A Coca-Cola pamphlet, Balancing Act. This gives five easy ways to burn 100 calories: playing soccer 13 minutes, briskly walking 15 minutes, climbing stairs 10 minutes, jumping rope 9 minutes, gardening 19 minutes (based on a 150 lb person). Funny, it doesn’t mention that one 12-ounce Coke is 140 calories.
A FamilyDoctor.org pamphlet, Healthy Eating for Kids, from the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Dietetic Association, distributed with a grant from Coca-Cola. It lists healthy eating habits—family meals, be active, limit screen time, stay positive, etc (but—surprise—does not suggest that your kid might be healthier not drinking sugar-sweetened beverages).