Soda Wars

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Soda Wars


The news that the beverage industry has filed suit challenging the recently passed New York City regulation banning the sale of sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces at various retail venues should have grocers considering the ways that their own assortment and marketing strategies balance consumers’ desires for better health with their hankering for good-tasting products.

As this battle plays out in the courts of New York, and potentially in such other places as Richmond and El Monte, Calif., where voters will decide on Election Day whether those cities implement penny-per-ounce taxes on soda and sugary drinks, it's currently evident, at least according to a recent poll in The New York Times, that while shoppers want to be healthy, they also want to be the ones to make their own decisions about the types of the products they consume, how much and when.

But that hasn’t stopped the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) -- no friend of the soft drink industry -- from stepping up its longstanding campaign to reduce the consumption of soda and other sugary drinks with the release of an animated short film, “The Real Bears,” which uses the animals often featured in Coca-Cola advertising to illustrate the supposed evils of such beverages, to the strains of a snappy new song co-written and sung by Grammy winner Jason Mraz.

According to adman Alex Bogusky, who provided creative direction on the short: “This project attempts to contrast the marketing hype around soda with the stark reality, and it is my hope that it makes some small contribution to a critical cultural awakening,” Mraz expressed the desire that people would enjoy only “the occasional soda” and the rest of the time “choose healthier options.”

CSPI has also invited people to submit creative videos of people pouring out soda on or about Oct. 24, with the aim of inspiring “conversation about soda, soda marketing, and the impact of sugary drinks on the obesity epidemic.” Submissions will be accepted through Wednesday, Nov. 7, and the winning entry will receive a $1,000 cash prize.

Among soft drink manufacturers, Coca-Cola, for one, has been fairly restrained in its response to the organization’s anti-soda campaign. To Ad Age, Coke spokeswoman Susan Stribling has dismissed such tactics as “irresponsible and the usual grandstanding from CSPI,” which the company points out doesn’t provide any information on energy balance. The Atlanta-based beverage giant has also been mildly critical of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s anti-obesity efforts, noting this past June, before the passage of the soda ban: “[W]e believe the best way to tackle obesity is by working together. As a team, we can make a lot more progress. People can consume calories from many different foods and beverages, so it makes no sense to single out sugar-sweetened beverages.”

While the next chapters of the soda debate remain to be seen, one thing is crystal clear in the interim: Grocers will need to chart a careful course that indicates respect for both the health concerns of experts and consumers and the freedom of choice that enables shoppers to make up their own minds about what they drink. The key, perhaps, is an emphasis on easily accessible information at the shelf, such as the ratings provided by the various nutrition guidance programs now being rolled out at any number of supermarkets, accompanied by adjacent better-for-you options for the growing number health-minded shoppers.

These actions may be able to strike just the right balance between outright bans on “unacceptable” products and leaving customers completely to their own devices.