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Obesity researchers say Coke and Pepsi should stop targeting communities of color with ads

Obesity researchers say Coke and Pepsi should stop targeting communities of color with ads
[Photo: Mahbod Akhzami/Unsplash]

If you want to know why communities of color suffer high rates of obesity and diabetes, start with the beverage industry: A new report finds that sugary drink advertising jumped 26% to $1.04 billion since 2013—and such advertising targets Hispanic and Black communities.

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Black children and teens see more than twice as many sugary drink ads (256 and 331 ads per year) as their white counterparts, according to a new report by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Sugary drinks are also heavily advertised on Spanish-language TV, particularly Coke and Gatorade; Powerade devotes a third of its TV ad dollars to Spanish-language TV. (Only 13% of Americans speak Spanish at home.)

The spending is driven by PepsiCo, which is responsible for 38% of all sugary drink advertising (and upped its spending by 28% since 2013), as well as Coca-Cola, which accounts for just under a third of all sugary drink ad spending. Coke increased its sugary drink ad spending by a whopping 81% since 2013, which is a time period during which numerous studies appeared linking sugary drinks with poor health outcomes. The top-spending brands are Coke, Pepsi, Gatorade, and Mountain Dew.

“Companies should not target communities of color with advertising that almost exclusively promotes unhealthy products and undermines efforts to improve the long-term health of young people,” says lead author Jennifer L. Harris, a senior research adviser at the Rudd Center. “Our findings demonstrate that beverage companies continue to target their advertising to Black and Hispanic communities, which exacerbates ongoing health disparities affecting those communities.”

One serving of soda, energy drink, sweetened ice tea, fruit drink, or sports drink contains 1-2 times the daily recommended maximum sugar intake for an adult, according to the report.

The findings for children are particularly noteworthy: Despite 35%-52% declines in time spent watching TV since 2013, preschoolers, children, and teens are still exposed to significantly more sugary drink ads than they were in 2013. For example, Hispanic preschoolers and children saw 44%-61% more Pepsi ads than in 2013.

The report calls for beverage companies to, well, stop. Recommendations include not targeting people of color, and taxes on sugary drinks, with the proceeds to be invested in community programs to reduce health and socioeconomic disparities.

Reached for comment, PepsiCo sent the following statement:

“PepsiCo has strong global commitments on responsible advertising to children of all races, in all communities. We were one of the first companies to articulate a policy on marketing to children and we are constantly auditing our efforts to ensure we are upholding our rigorous marketing standards while also showcasing the full range of our products. That’s why we featured only zero sugar products at recent Super Bowls, including bubly sparkling water, Mountain Dew Zero and Pepsi Zero sugar, and why we will continue to promote products that offer more nutritious choices.”

And this is how Coca-Cola responded:

“At The Coca-Cola Company, we agree that too much sugar isn’t good for anyone, and we are taking steps throughout the world to help people reduce the amount of sugar they consume from our products . . . In recent years, we have been aggressively changing recipes to reduce added sugar and promoting low- and no-calorie beverage options. In fact, in 2019, we removed 350,000 tons of added sugar globally, on an annualized basis, through product reformulations . . . Coca-Cola North America respects the role of parents and caregivers by not marketing directly to children under 13. Specifically, this means we will not advertise in television programming, print media, websites, social media, movies or SMS/email marketing where more than 35 percent of the audience is composed of children under 13.”

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