Putman's case is interesting. During his tenure at Coke, between 1997 and 2001, he says, the company treated these three groups as growth markets representing a "lifetime of opportunity." It was part of a strategy to increase what he plaintively called "share of stomach."
"Apologies are due," he said. There is a "karmic debt" to be repaid.
Immediately, the Atlanta-based soft drink behemoth shot back. A spokesperson said that Putman hadn't worked for the company in 12 years and that its beverage business had changed drastically since that time. Katie Bayne, Coca-Cola's president of sparkling beverages in North America, told USA TODAY, "there is no scientific evidence" that connects sugar beverages to obesity. Sugary drinks, she added, can be part of any good diet, as long as calories-in balance with calories-out.
Bayne's nutritional equation might add up, but she is off on her scientific evidence. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, sugar-sweetened beverages are the primary source of added sugar to the American diet. Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity summarized several studies last year establishing that that African Americans, who are more likely to drink them, are at a higher risk for obesity and related chronic diseases.
And the Rudd Center's study found that soda companies are targeting African American and Hispanic children -- as Putnam suggests -- in high numbers. For instance, the study found that :
Should soft-drink companies be faulted, as Putman asserts, for singling out minorities? Or is a multicultural strategy, in this day and age, just a good example of smart marketing?
In the interest of transparency, let me confess my bias. I've done a lot of work over the years for one of the big soft-drink companies. Let me point out that I've seen that company do a lot to increase consumption of its diet drinks, bottled water, juice and healthy snacks. But let's face it. Hispanics and African Americans are much less interested in diet products. Sugary drinks -- often the sweeter the better -- do well with them. There are a lot of cultural barriers to getting both these groups to understand the importance of being lean.
I am not a health-care professional. I am a multicultural market researcher. And in my experience, the big soft-drink companies are at the top of the list among those who see that our country is changing, both demographically and culturally. They have strong multicultural marketing efforts. And they are reaping the benefits.
Multicultural marketing is about talking to minorities -- or if you prefer, the new mainstream -- and representing them, acknowledging them and showing them that you care about their business. Could soft-drink companies and others in the sugar business do a better job of promoting healthy food and beverage consumption, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics? Absolutely. Do they owe these groups an apology? I don't think so.
In a criticism of Mr. Bloomberg, Stefan Friedman, a spokesperson for the New York City Beverage Association said, "The city is not going to address the obesity issue by attacking soda because soda is not driving the obesity rates." I tend to agree. The fault is with overconsumption. Responsibility lies with parents. A contributing factor is culture. On many levels, the soft-drink industry is being demonized as if it were the new big tobacco.
As a multicultural marketer, I applaud the leadership of the soft-drink industry in recognizing the changing face of America. Many of their African-American and Hispanic customers do too.