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Culture Jamming the Soda War

June 24, 2015

Advertising is something I happen to know a little bit about. Before moving to upstate New York, I worked for some of the world’s biggest ad agencies. And my last job was arguably at one of the world’s best shops. It was a fun career. If, maybe, just a little bit evil.

There’s this really interesting dialectic.

On one hand advertising can do very little. Think about a thirty second TV spot. And try to forget for a moment how few people pay attention to the commercials even when they are on. These days, many viewers who watch television can easily skip over the spots, but that hasn’t fundamentally changed the equation. Most people were tuning out long before they had ad skipping technology. But in thirty seconds a brand can say very little. Sure, you can create a mood, and help to build a brand. However, nobody is going to decide to buy a Mazda because they saw a commercial on TV. Nobody. It’s never, ever happened.

On the other hand, advertising is somehow incredibly powerful. If you listen to public interest groups, those behind the scenes in creative departments are somehow able to tap into the deepest recesses of human behavior and enslave the masses to our corporate overlords.

So how does this all work? Well, that was where I used to come in. Messages can be powerful, but it’s the repetition of messages that really gets them to stick. It helps to have hundreds of millions of dollars over many many years.

But sometimes one incredibly powerful message can strike a nerve with very little money put behind it. For example, have you heard this little ditty about soda?

Back when I was still engaged in the ad world, I did my penance by buying a crazy Canadian magazine called Adbusters. It was all about culture-jamming and discouraging rampant consumerism. It warmed my heart to be supporting those who were fighting against the work I was doing. Somehow it felt like the least I could do to balance the scales.

I love that CSPI is using advertising to fight advertising. And the video is mighty compelling. Especially the fact that, “sugary drinks are the single largest source of calories in the American diet.”

Wow. Wow.

The video also says, “Beverage companies spend about $1 billion per year advertising sugary drinks.” Honestly, that feels low. Mostly because I’m sure that number is just what the beverage companies spend on commercial media placements. But there are co-op advertising campaigns. Those supermarket flyers that you get in the mail alerting you to two liter bottles of soda for under a buck? That’s advertising too. And those fast food commercials where the QSR companies show an extra value meal with an effervescent soft drink as part of the combo? That’s advertising. The branded soda machines you pass on the street, the scoreboards at sporting events, and even the stack of cups at your local slice shops. All of that is advertising too.

Quick question: What happens at the end of a football game to the winning coach?

Now to be fair, the beverage company that produces that sugary drink doesn’t pay any money for that exposure. But they do probably have some financial arrangement to make sure their logo is on the cooler before it gets upended in celebration.

That’s a form of advertising too.

Sure. Pulling the thirty-second TV spots off the air would probably have some kind of impact on soda sales in America. But the advertising is not the root of the problem.

It’s quite possible that the soda companies would love it if some federal law made them stop producing TV ads. Then they might be able to funnel that money into something much much more effective. One reason brands spend so much in advertising is because their competitors are doing it. This becomes a very expensive, and highly inefficient, race for consumer attention. We used to call it “share of voice” and in a competitive business environment, it’s very motivating for brand managers.

Think about what the sugary beverage business would do with an extra billion dollars a year to try and move more of their product. They could make it even cheaper. Or use the money to build baseball diamonds for kids all over the country. Every time a kid was engaged in sports, they would be both thirsty and reminded of the sugar water brand that made it all possible. Or maybe they would get involved in the baby formula business, and develop a product that conditioned us at an even younger age to crave sweet beverages.

The real answer here is education. Consumer education. And it starts at home. And it continues in schools. But before it can start at home, parents (and potential parents) need to be educated. That means spending more money on public health campaigns.

Of course, it would also help if the federal government stopped subsidizing the production of cheap high fructose corn syrup which makes this all possible. Personally, I think the focus on advertising is a convenient distraction. It’s the thing that consumers see. But much like diabetes, it’s the things you can’t see that are killing you.

And I also have to say, I don’t really care for the tone of the anti-soda ad. I can totally get behind bashing the ubiquity of soda and the marketing practices of its manufacturers. But demonizing sugar makes me angry. Drinking a soda won’t make you sick. Eating sugar won’t give you diabetes.

I understand what CSPI is trying to do, and I can respect the effort. But drinking wine can cause disease too. Don’t take away my wine. Let’s not forget that drinking too much water can literally kill you, and drinking too much milk isn’t good for you either.

But man, it’s a catchy tune. And hopefully it will change some minds.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2015 11:37 am

    Wow! I cannot believe I have not seen this campaign yet. It reminds me of the cigarette/lung cancer ads. While powerful to some it’s not going to stop people from consuming sugar. I agree that education is a HUGE piece to all of that. I applaud the schools that are doing things like using gardens to teach the kids where food comes from…if we just direct our attention to the foods that are healthy we can hope that the other less healthy (read:sugar-laden frankenfoods) become less desirable. We have a long long way to go however. We just did a Q&A podcast on High Fructose Corn Syrup, it SHOCKS me that it’s still allowed in foods frankly and I get it’s cost driven but why oh why! Great post Daniel!

  2. June 26, 2015 2:27 pm

    [loud needle scratching a vinyl record sound]

    “Back when I was still engaged in the ad world, I did my penance by buying a crazy Canadian magazine called Adbusters.”


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