Those of us who are of a certain age will remember the Cola Wars. In the 70s and 80s, soda rivals Pepsi and Coke went head to head to capture the brown, sweet fizzy water market. “Taking the Pepsi Challenge” meant participating in a blind taste test of the two drinks. There were loyalty programs, endless commercials, and Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire. It was wild. But as with any two superpowers, the fight cannot go on forever, especially after they realize that by teaming up, they can make the world safer for shillers of diluted, dyed corn syrup.
Now, the Cola Wars are fought in more diverse, hidden arenas. Instead of spending endless marketing dollars on TV ad spots and taste-testing gimmicks, Big Cola is investing their money where it counts: favorable legislation and spin. A study by researchers at Boston University, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, took a systematic look at the organizations and lobbying targets on the receiving end of that dark, sweet lucre.
What bubbled up in their search may be no surprise to the cynical. Together, Pepsi and Coke poured funds into lobbying efforts to kill legislation aimed at voluntary guidelines for marketing food to children, restricting the ability to purchase soda with SNAP benefits, labeling GMO ingredients, various soda taxes, and limiting the portion sizes for sugary drinks, among other legislative efforts in the interest of public health. The donations also overflowed into organizations like Feeding America, the American Diabetes Association, the National Institutes for Health, the National Dental Association, the Hudson Institute Obesity Solutions Initiative, the Society for Nutrition Educators, and the YMCA.
While the effervescence of their generosity may be a form of noblesse oblige or even atonement for the effects of their products on the human body, there’s also a more sinister possibility that they’re looking to water down public resistance to the guzzling of soda, something roughly half of Americans do on a daily basis, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. Can an organization that relies on the sponsorship of a given industry really criticize that same industry, even when it is ostensibly that organization’s mission to do so? A charitable perspective might allow for a certain Robin Hood effect, when groups that fight obesity or diabetes take money from Big Cola to further their agendas. The question remains, though: how much of their effort must they keep bottled up in order to keep receiving a little sugar now and then?
Much like the recently uncovered plot by the sugar industry to blame fat intake for heart disease, though, Coke’s efforts to reimagine obesity as merely a lack of exercise problem that has nothing to do with diet (or, frankly, a Coke habit) seem insincere at best. If their care for people and health were as genuine as their donations to “Save the Children” imply, they would take the high road and not lobby for their continued prosperity at the expense of children. Corporations may be people in the accounting placeholder sense, but not at all in the moral sense. When their main concern seems to be finding the most efficient ways to hook us into buying their product, even at the cost of our well-being, we are only valued when we spend and consume. The Cola Wars are still being fought, but now Coke and Pepsi have teamed up, and we’re the ones getting popped.