Coca-Cola’s century old strategy to influence perceptions and policy

Coca-Cola is a marketing machine.

It’s in the company’s DNA. Go back to its roots in the 1880’s and 1890’s when the company’s pharmacist founders were asking the question: how can we get people to buy a product whose main ingredient is one of Earth’s most abundant elements – water?

Fast forward to today, when we’re now finally understanding the intricacies of Coca-Cola’s marketing and political strategies (or maybe just a new application of old ones).

First came the 2015 NY Times story about Coca-Cola’s $125 million in funding for health organizations and initiatives to shift the obesity debate away from unhealthy diets and to physical activity. Only after this story did Coca-Cola reinvigorate a commitment to transparency, publishing its recent funding data on its website. As for the story’s main protagonist, the Global Energy Balance Network, made up of prominent obesity researchers across the country? Well, that group disbanded as a result.

Then, last month, Stanton Glantz of UCSF and several colleagues published a landmark historical analysis of internal sugar industry documents dating back to the 1960’s. Like his renowned work investigating the tobacco industry’s tactics to undermine public health, Glantz et al found that:

“the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in CHD [coronary heart disease].”

Decades of anti-dietary fat advice ensued, despite there being mixed evidence to show that fat intake, and especially saturated fat, is linked to heart disease or all-cause mortality.

Sugar continued to get a free pass in many respects, sparking a new surge in sugar consumption in the 1960’s and 70’s after a 40-year holding period. (As an aside, considering the full graph, a remarkable piece of work by obesity researcher Stephan Guyenet, he points out, “in 1822, we ate the amount of added sugar in one 12 ounce can of soda every five days, while today we eat that much sugar every seven hours.”) Now ultra-processed foods, almost all of which contain added sugar, account for more than half of what the average American eats each day.


If that all wasn’t enough, the story gets even better. Earlier this year, Coca-Cola came under fire for paying dietitians to recommend Coca-Cola products and oppose soda taxes. Yet new leaked internal documents from Coca-Cola shows that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Coca-Cola, by itself and acting through various trade associations and coalitions, has sought to influence and undermine public health policy at all levels, local, state, federal, and international.


And this all happens behind a charming public persona that aims to demonstrate the company’s commitment to promoting health, like the millions in contributions to prominent universities, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and professional societies. Many of these organizations are charged with setting public health and healthcare norms and standards, such as the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Sports Medicine, American College of Family Physicians, American College of Cardiology, American Cancer Society and the American Dietetic Association. Between 2011 and 2015, Coca-Cola and Pepsi sponsored some 96 public health organizations all while lobbying against 29 public health pieces of legislation.

But here’s the kicker. Coca-Cola’s current political tactics aren’t new. They follow the same playbook used in the past when the company faced similar policy threats to its bottom line. Almost a century ago, Coca-Cola embarked on an eerily similar strategy to defeat sugar tariff policies. Bartow Elmore describes the campaign in detail in his incredible history of the company, Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism:

The soft drink company purchased over 2.2 million pounds of refined sugar from Hershey in 1928. As a result, when a Republican pro-tariff Congress met to discuss raising Cuban raw and refined sugar duties in the spring of 1929, Chairman Robert Woodruff reach out to Milton Hershey and expressed his interest in establishing an advertising campaign that would ‘bring to the public’s attention the evils of the contemplated increase in the raw sugar tariff and the proposed differential against imported refined.’ The key was anonymity. Woodruff suggested that appeals be made through third-party agents who would appear to represent the interest of the masses. He envisioned ‘cartoons and editorials’ and anti-tariff articles in ‘sympathetic mediums’ read by the average consumer. Coke and Hershey would supply the promotional directives and commissioned writers would plant the material in popular media outlets. Hershey agreed to the proposition, offering to pay up to half the cost of the campaign. By 1932, Coke and Hershey collectively spent over $50,000 on anti-tariff propaganda, working with publicity agencies to produce opinion pieces, editorials, and other publications designed to motivate consumers to push for sugar duty reductions.” (emphasis added)

As originally said by the philosopher George Santayana, and popularized by the likes of Winston Churchill,

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


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