Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pepsi Refresh adapts Big Tobacco marketing playbook for the 21st century.

Have you heard about Pepsi Refresh? If not, I promise you will, probably from your friends.

Pepsi Refresh is Pepsi's latest brilliant marketing campaign.

The premise is simple. Each month for a year consumers will be asked to submit and vote for Pepsi funded grants ranging from $5,000 to $250,000 in one of six areas: Health, arts and culture, food and shelter, the planet, neighborhoods and education. 1,000 applications are accepted monthly and applicants use their own social networks to rally for votes. Each month Pepsi will fund up to 32 projects and they estimate that over the course of the year they'll give out in the neighborhood of $20 million to "refresh everything".

So what's in it for Pepsi?

Public sentiment and trust. Effectively this is a one year legitimacy campaign with the aim of creating deep and meaningful positive connections with consumers in some of the very areas that Pepsi has run into difficulty - health (obesity), food and shelter (junk food), the planet (factories, waste and plastic), and education (obesity).

Ultimately Pepsi Refresh is an extremely cost effective public relations and framing tool geared to position Pepsi as part of the solution and not as part of the problem, a play perhaps learned from the experiences of Big Tobacco.

In Brownell and Warner's fantastic paper, "The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?" they lay out the playbook of Big Tobacco in their handling of the news that smoking was really, really bad for you.

In their opinion the writing of the playbook began on January 4th, 1954 when the industry published, "A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers" and had it published in 448 newspapers with the personal signatures of the top Big Tobacco executives adorning the statements,

"We accept an interest in people’s health as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business."


"We always have and always will cooperate closely with those whose task it is to safeguard the public’s health"
Flash forward to 2010 and here's Pepsi doing the very same thing but this time with the harnessed power of social networking.

Brownell and Warner describe Big Tobacco's statement as,
"a charade, the first step in a concerted, half-century-long campaign to mislead Americans about the catastrophic effects of smoking and to avoid public policy that might damage sales"
and that their reasons for launching it in retrospect were as plain as day,
"The industry wanted desperately to prevent, or at least delay, shifts in public opinion that would permit a barrage of legislative, regulatory, and legal actions that would erode sales and profits."
And what are Pepsi's concerns?

Schools are banning the sales of their products, governments are considering soda and junk food taxes, banning advertisements targeting children, and creating more transparent food labeling laws, while the public is growing more and more concerned about the impact of obesity on their future and that of their loved ones.

Pepsi is taking the Big Tobacco playbook and giving it some 21st century polish. And it's not just their Pepsi Refresh project.

In February Pepsi teamed up with Yale University's Faculty of Medicine to open a research laboratory to fund the development of, "healthier food and beverage products" as well establish a fellowship to Yale's MD/PhD program to fund work on nutritional research. This led Michele Simon, public health lawyer and author of Appetite for Profit (the book and the blog) to quip about returning her Yale law degree.

The Wall Street Journal explained Michele's concerns,
"When a business gets its name worked into the academic fabric of a school, it is buying something more than a place to slap a corporate insignia. There is the implication that the firm is a partner in the intellectual enterprise."
Pepsi wants you to believe that they're part of the team trying to find the solution, not the team fueling the problem.

Never mind that they're spending $30 million rebranding Gatorade to snag teenage athletes, never mind the $5 million they spent in 2009 lobbying the American government to help stymie progressive food marketing, or the $6.7 million they spent in 2009 lobbying the government to support their stances on school nutrition, or the nearly $7 million they spent in 2009 lobbying against soda taxes - they're the good guys, just look at what they're doing with Pepsi Refresh.

More depressing still? I've had high school friends and blogging buddies, including physicians and researchers, send me links on Facebook and Twitter encouraging me to vote for the Pepsi Refresh projects they felt worthwhile.

If they can't see through this Big Tobacco'esque smoke screen, who will?

Ultimately Pepsi Refresh is meant to refresh Pepsi's image. If Pepsi can sway the court of public opinion to think they're the good guys, that gives them clout politically. How? Politicians, expect perhaps New York's politicians, tend not to push issues where they don't have public support. Much tougher to garner public support for practices that might impact negatively on Pepsi when what the public remembers is that Pepsi offered to fund little Timmy's classroom computers, or a $250,000 program to help combat childhood obesity. With 1,000 different grant applications a month that means there are 1,000s of folks each month all harnessing the power of their own personal social networks to spread the word that Pepsi's a wonderful company.

Brilliant. The stuff of I'm sure many future case studies in advertising textbooks.

I know that the Big Food apologists out there will argue that it's sour grapes that makes me be so negative. Why not take money from Pepsi to do good? What harm is there?

My answer?

How many years did Big Tobacco manage to continue to pull the wool over people's eyes and minimize the negative impact of their products? How many deaths are attributable to their stall tactics?

Obesity is now the number one preventable cause of death and my hope would have been that at the very least those who should know better would feel it just as anathema to stump for Pepsi funding community altruism as they would feel stumping for Philip Morris.

I don't think junk food can, or should be banned, but that doesn't mean that people should feel comfortable getting into bed with Big Food. Philip Morris is still allowed to sell cigarettes, but at least no one in their right mind would touch them with a ten foot pole for research fellowships, University chairs, hospital wings, health conference sponsorships or funding their children's school's computer room. I can only hope that one day the same will be true of the purveyors of junk food.

Deals with the devil always have consequences.

BROWNELL, K., & WARNER, K. (2009). The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food? Milbank Quarterly, 87 (1), 259-294 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2009.00555.x

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  1. This is a great post, Yoni. Some things I wonder about -- The big tobacco companies sell tobacco, and that's what they do, but food companies can sell things that aren't health-harming, if they were to decide to do so. Is the issue that big companies have no souls regardless of what they sell? Or is it that we need to "go local" so conglomerates can never be good because of the consolidation, pollution, etc? What companies like Pepsi sell is convenience and "refreshment" -- the refreshment part isn't inherently bad, a cup of tea or a glass of cool, tasty water can sure be refreshing. I am a fan of carbonated sugar-free beverages but my sister recently bought a soda-making machine so I no longer have to line the pockets of big soda to get my fix, I can make my own. I guess what's more problematic is the "big" rather than the "food." I am completely in favor of banning food advertising to children. I think we need to look back even farther than tobacco to temperance to see what does and doesn't work when dealing with unhealthy substances that are pervading the culture. That in the U.S. food regulation is seen as unnecessary and somehow unpatriotic (people can get sick and die from contaminated food but corporate profits must be protected at all costs) makes it very hard to have rational discussions about it. I know Marion Nestle has covered this ground, but maybe people are appreciating that things can be different.
    Sometimes seemingly unrelated changes can lead to the "casting off" of our societal dependencies to a more healthy place. I think health reform in the U.S. might be one of those forces -- more people who stay in salaried positions for health benefits could be local food entrepreneurs and give big food a run for its money by offering local, healthy alternatives in the "convenient, refreshing" realm. I live in a place where not watching TV is something many people do, where we have an amazing local food scene and we have a relatively healthy population. It makes me realize that another thing I could start to do is to buy less corporate food, however I define that -- maybe by the size of the company or the annual profits. We make much of what we eat and buy only a few processed foods (the goldfish crackers with whole wheat in them, for example). But there probably are a set of questions I could ask myself when I buy something, like, "where do the profits go" and if the answer is my local food coop, a local farmer (or a not-so-local one), a company whose values I do agree with -- then I can feel better about buying it than I do about buying a can of diet coke or diet pepsi.

  2. Thanks for the great info.

    Your readers might enjoy Kelly Brownell's podcasts...lots of great interviews and information: Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity — Podcasts

    Ken Leebow

  3. If Pepsi truly were interested in all the community and health benefits their program is supporting - they would set up a blind trust giving out the funds with nary a mention of their company name or products....guess that'll never happen.

  4. Anonymous7:22 am

    I really liked this article and really appreciate you posting this. It actually makes me wonder if there is a refresh project that could be started to counter the big food business. Such as a research project to study the "healthy" labeling on products against the actual food itself. Ultimately to get some sort of legislation to remove deceiving labels like "Smart" or "X amount" of whatever they claim is best for you. I was under the impression at one time that the labels were regulated to be accurate as possible. But now it seems that the scale is tipping in the opposite direction as politicians look the other way while their pocket fills with money.

  5. Anonymous10:03 pm

    Yoni, you should challenge yourself to apply for a Refresh grant. Read the fine print first cuz Application Guideline 7b Clause 6 says "Applications cannot to any degree disparage or denigrate a product, service, person, company or organization including, but not limited to, Sponsor."

    Question, Is Pepsi's lobbying part of the "Refresh Everything" spirit?

    And while they are allowing healthy eating ideas into the Refresh, did you know that the CEO doesn't think obesity is related to diet?

    Meanwhile, MSNBC's @DylanRatigan does a great job holding a bottle of Pepsi while he gives 'em a free informercial via Max Schorr of GOOD INC and Kara Lubin of 100 Mile Club

    Maybe we should all just vote for the Horror Film Fest since that's what this Pepsi campaign is, right?

    See also:
    Lyn Pentecost: Pimping for Pepsi? I'd Rather Sell Cupcakes!

    Advertise Like You Give A Damn by Diana Lind

    #UnRefreshing How Pepsi’s Cause Marketing Annoys Me

    Why I Stopped Asking You to Vote for NeighborGoods in the Pepsi Refresh Challenge

    Back to school with PepsiCo stealth marketing?