Marketing of Sugary Drinks: NewPublicHealth Q&A with Jennifer Harris

Oct 31, 2011, 2:30 PM, Posted by

At an APHA session this morning, researchers from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity released a new study, which found that beverage companies extensively market sugary drinks to youths.

The report’s authors studied the marketing practices of 14 beverage companies and examined the nutritional quality of nearly 600 products, including full-calorie sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks.

“Beverage companies have pledged to improve child-directed advertising,” said lead researcher Jennifer Harris, PhD, MBA, and director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center. “But we are not seeing a true decrease in marketing exposure. Instead companies have shifted from traditional media to newer forms that engage youth through rewards for purchasing sugary drinks, community events, cause-related marketing, promotions, product placements, social media, and smartphones.”

The report was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rudd Foundation.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Dr. Harris about the Rudd Center report.

NewPublicHealth: What were the major study findings?

Dr. Harris: There were two main things that we found. One was we looked at the nutrition and ingredients in fruit drinks, sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks and flavored waters and ice teas, and especially with the children’s fruit drinks we were very surprised at what was contained in those drinks. A lot of parents think they’re healthy products to serve their children, but most of them contained 5 percent or 10 percent juice at the most. A lot of them, 40 percent, contained artificial sweeteners, which you wouldn’t know unless you actually went through all the ingredients and knew some of these chemicals in them. And then the calories in the drinks were as high as the calories in the soda. So, basically these fruit drinks that are marketed to feed children are very unhealthy products, and we were surprised at how unhealthy they were.

The second thing was how much these products are marketed to children. So Kool-Aid and Capri Sun and SunnyD were the only three sugary drinks that were marketed on children’s television, but they also had websites and children saw a lot of advertising for those products. Then the third thing was with the sodas and the energy drinks, how much those are marketed to teens, but not in the traditional television advertisements. They were on TV, but not a lot. Instead they were on the radio, they were in product placements, they were on the Internet, in banner advertising, in social media, on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and also in even some mobile net banner ads and smart phone applications for these products. So when you looked at how much there was, it was really pretty shocking.

NPH: Were there any other marketing strategies used to target children and teens?

Dr. Harris: Well, a couple things. One is the soda companies especially are doing a lot of what they call consumer engagement where they have consumers vote on things like the next flavor or the group that’s going to get money for local community causes. That’s the Pepsi Refresh Campaign and the DEWmocracy Campaign, and lots and lots of interactive features in their marketing where they’re really trying to get young people to participate and send the information to their friends so it becomes viral and a lot of stuff that I think parents don’t really know about what’s happening, and there’s a lot of it going on.

NPH: You talked a bit about the nutritional content of these drinks, but just how unhealthy are they?

Dr. Harris: Almost all of the products that we looked at were almost entirely sugar and water. Children, and everyone in this country, consume too much sugar. And just one of those drinks either meets or exceeds recommended daily amounts of sugar for children and teens. So that’s number one. I didn’t mention the caffeine, but the energy drinks are highly caffeinated, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children and teens never consume them, yet they’re marketed directly to them.

NPH: Do kids fill up on these sugary drinks?

Dr. Harris: Well actually, this isn’t research that we’ve done, but it’s been researched fairly well in other places and one of the reasons that people think there’s such a connection between drinking sugary drinks and obesity is that it’s the opposite. When you consume your calories in the form of a liquid, your body doesn’t compensate for those calories. So what that means is that if you drink 100 calories, it doesn’t mean you’re going to eat less later on. Your body doesn’t recognize them in the same way that they recognize the calories in food. That’s one reason that a lot of people think it’s even more dangerous to consume your calories in the form of liquids than food. The liquid calories don’t fill you up.

NPH: The report shows there tends to be greater marketing to Hispanic and black children. Is that the case? Why is that?

Dr. Harris: Well, there’s definite evidence of that. Companies, especially Coke, have been very vocal about their desire to reach black and Hispanic consumers, and they position that as a good thing because they’re recognizing their importance as consumers. But what we found was that what they were doing was targeting them with these sugary drinks that are unhealthy and contribute to obesity, which is already a bigger problem in those communities.

There are a few ways that they do it. If you look at how many ads that black children and adolescents see, they see about twice as many TV ads for these products as white children see. Part of that is because they watch more television, but that’s not all of it. There are a few products we found in our research—like Sprite and Vitamin Water and Gatorade — that seem to be buying media to reach black youth more often. Then the messages that they use—Sprite has step competitions and that sort of thing, which is designed to appeal to the black community. For the Hispanic audience, we looked at Spanish-language television and radio, and there we found about eight products that were advertising there. It wasn’t huge amounts, but what we’re seeing is that it’s growing. So there was a lot more spending in Spanish-language TV in 2010 than there was in 2008, and so Hispanic kids were seeing more ads there than they had seen before.

Those young people do drink more sugary drinks—Hispanic and black youth drink more, a lot more.

NPH: What kinds of policies might be implemented to reduce or counteract the effects of sugary drink marketing?

Dr. Harris: Well there are a few things. One is to get the sugary drinks out of schools, because we’ve seen that affects young people’s consumption. Another thing we didn’t talk about is all of the positive nutrition messages that are featured on especially the fruit drinks and vitamin waters and products like that, which talk about vitamin C or real fruit flavors or make these products seem much healthier than they really are. Some nutritionists and public health advocates have proposed, not just for sugary drinks, but that nutrition criteria should be applied to any kind of food or drink that has a positive claim on it like that. So you couldn’t say this is a great source of vitamin C when it’s also twice as much sugar as you should be consuming in a day. That would come from the FDA. There’s no requirement to post caffeine content on foods and drinks, and about half of the energy drinks we looked at do not post their caffeine on the package, and the ones that do show that they’re very high, so that’s another thing that could be done.

But I think the biggest change is going to come from parents, and what we’d like to be able to communicate is how there’s really no reason to feed any of these products to your children. The products are damaging to children’s health and they’re contributing to obesity. If parents stop serving them and buying them and allowing them in their house, I think that’s the biggest incentive for the beverage companies to change what they’re doing.

NPH: What could the beverage companies be doing now that would help improve the situation of the very high level of sugary drinks being consumed?

Dr. Harris: Well I think the number one thing would be to stop marketing them to children and teens. That is what I would argue is driving their desire to drink the products. The other, smaller thing they could do is a lot of them have started posting the calories in a container on the front of the package, that that would be positive, as well as providing nutrition information for the products. We talked about in our report how difficult it was for us to get this information. It’s not easily available. So that would be something they should do. And take the artificial sweeteners out of the children’s products.

And in the meantime parents can say, “I’m sorry, I will not have these products in my house.” You know, that doesn’t mean the child won’t sneak one here or there, but most sugary drinks are consumed in the house.

Learn more about this report and download the report summary here.

>>Follow additional APHA 2011 coverage on NewPublicHealth here.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.