Hats Off to the Soft-Drink Industry for Giving Attention to Hispanics and Blacks

The Soda Business Is Ripped for Targeting Groups With High Obesity Rates, but Owes No Apologies for Smart Marketing

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When the marketing history books are written, June 2012 may be known as the month of the soda wars. So far this month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a plan to ban sodas above 16 ounces. Disney, in league with Michelle Obama, announced that it would ban advertisements for unhealthy food and drinks from its children's channels. And a former Coca-Cola marketing executive, Todd Putman, described as a "cut-throat ad man," appeared on ABC news and expressed his regret for cooperating in the company's policy to target teenagers, Hispanics and African Americans with its drinks.

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 :

  • Soda ads made up 13% of the ads on black prime time shows, compared with 2% of ads on general prime time shows.
  • Soft drinks were 13.5% of ads with non-whites (almost exclusively blacks) compared with 6.2 percent of ads with whites.
  • Exposure to SSB ads decreased over time at all ages, but the decrease was less for black than white children.
  • As for outdoor advertising, Black and Latino neighborhoods had the most ads for higher calorie/low-nutrient foods, including sugary beverages.
  • 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.

    David Morse is president-CEO of New American Dimensions and the author of Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation
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