As state and local governments consider taxing soda and sugary drinks to raise money and address the national obesity epidemic, manufacturers of sugary drinks -- like countless other industries -- are taking PR cues from the tobacco industry to defeat the initiatives. The PR tactics they are using are starting to be old hat. By now, everyone should be able to spot them, but just in case you're not up to speed on your corporate PR literacy, here's what to look for:
Step One: Position your product as the solution, not the problem
Coca Cola, Pepsico and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group are running print and TV ads promoting their joint initiative to remove full-calorie, artificially-sweetened drinks from schools. At the same time, Americans Against Food Taxes, the front group for the sugary drink manufacturers, is sending out emails boasting that soda companies have replaced full-calorie soft drinks with "smaller-portion" and "portion-controlled" beverages, real juice and bottled water in schools. Voila'! Their products are no longer the problem, they are part of the solution. Even better, now they'll get kids to buy more bottled water -- which costs them next to nothing to make -- at a dollar a bottle. Score!
Step Two: Broaden the issue to take attention off your products
Broadening the issue is a classic tobacco industry strategy. Big Tobacco distracted people from the health hazards of secondhand smoke by shifting the topic to one of overall indoor air quality and poor ventilation, and by sending experts touring the country promoting "Sick Building Syndrome." This is Philip Morris's "bigger monster" strategy -- generating fear against something else to take attention off your products. The soda companies are doing the same thing here when they try to generate outrage against a soda tax by calling it a tax on "groceries." It isn't a tax on all of your groceries. It's just a tax on sugary drinks. They're trying to press your buttons.
Step Three: Claim it will cost jobs and tank the economy
The soda industry is arguing that a tax on their products will hurt the economy and result in job loss. Grocery workers will lose their jobs, they say, because people will drive to the next city, town or state to buy their soda to avoid paying the tax. (Of course, the answer to that would be a uniform national tax, but they don't mention that.) The tobacco industry routinely pulled out these same economic arguments to try and scare legislators out of taxing cigarettes. It worked for years.
Okay, putting fewer calories in school vending machines is a fine idea, but soda companies could do that without spending a fortune touting that they have done it. All the money spent on ad campaigns could instead go to shareholders, or they could donate it to, say, school libraries instead. But the soda makers' self-congratulatory ad campaigns and press releases just prove that industries keep recycling the same old PR strategies, pulling them out over and over again to try and frighten us into giving them their way. Even worse, they have all been taken from the same playbook -- the cigarette makers'. Their strategies are designed to distract people from the real problems, generate fear, and to encourage people to make decisions based on emotions instead of the facts.
Learning to recognize these PR techniques will inoculate you against them. Just remember, always look behind the arguments to see how your emotions are being manipulated, and take a few extra minutes to get the honest facts.