2016, Business

Profiting off illusions: How soda brands are selling lethal dreams in Pakistan

This article originally appeared on Dawn’s web edition.

I developed an emotional connection with Pepsi in my childhood, thanks in large part to the endorsements it received from the likes of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Junaid Jamshed.

Unaware of the adverse effects of soft drinks, Pepsi even became my preferred drink when competing in local tennis tournaments as a pre-teen.

The dichotomous nature of cola consumption, strongly promoted by the soft drink industry and exacerbated by the Cola wars of the 90’s, naturally helped cultivate my aversion for Coke.

When the World Cup came to Pakistan in 1996, I was dismayed about Coca Cola being the official sponsor, though Pepsi’s innovative “There’s nothing official about it” counter-campaign gave me reason to rejoice.

The problem with emotions is that often the intensity of one’s feelings is directly proportional to irrationality in matters concerning the object of one’s affection.

So even when my taste buds sent strong signals to my brain that Coke tasted better than Pepsi when I was deprived of the latter by the canteen at my high school, I clung onto the brand that had resonated with me on a deeper, almost visceral level.

It took a few years before I outgrew my childish bias and began opting guilt-free for Coke before quitting soft drinks altogether in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle.

Obviously, that was a great decision.

Numerous studies — the ones not tainted by the sponsorship of the soft drink industry — clearly show a strong co-relation between consumption of sugary drinks and multiple ailments — including diabetes and heart disease.

Irresponsibility galore

Considering that soft drinks are addictive and are demonstrably harmful, one would think that soda brands would be prudent marketers.

But recent campaigns by Coca Cola, Pepsi and Sprite, which are predominantly driven by the bizarre idea that no meal is complete without stuffing yourself with your favourite soda, show a healthy disregard for ethics and belie a responsibility towards their consumers.

A quick scanning of the soda brands’ Facebook pages reveals the strategies they employ.

Coca Cola, for instance, aggressively promotes daily consumption of its product, ignoring the misery that is bound to afflict habitual consumers (Pepsi and Sprite are more subtle in their advocacy of daily doses).

The callousness of the brand’s approach is underscored by the fact that Facebook users include children as young as 13 years old.

It seems to have no qualms about marketing directly to children with lines such as Coke is a source of “happiness” for families and friends at mealtimes, and what could possibly make one unhappy about seeing their kids succumb to the allure of gulping down sugar syrups?

 

On one post, a kid, who appears to be a college student, publicly voices her concern to a friend about being unable to resist Coke’s charm offensive, to which the friend playfully responds that she will have to bear the consequences to her health.

Coke then chimes in that she shouldn’t resist, because what does the health of its consumers matter to a brand that rakes in billions in profits?

The social media marketing of cola brands is not just restricted to encouraging followers to drink up as the brands build their prestige through an array of diverse posts.

Their Facebook walls are laced with glamour shots of celebrity endorsers and movie stars, slick video productions with most of them showcasing hip college kids enjoying sodas in their youthful exuberance and glitzy photos and e-posters of their products combined with an invitation to “share” thoughts, ideas and experiences — some of which may actually get a response from their kind social media managers.

The brands also, of course, position themselves as responsible corporate citizens because what good is your favourite soft drink manufacturer without a token CSR initiative?

However, the brands appear to absolve themselves of the responsibility of educating their uninformed customers, even if they are heading towards disaster as many who proudly proclaim to be addicted to the sodas surely are.

Many of the more enthusiastic customers, who appear to be in their teens, publicly broadcast their ignorance when confronted by other posters about the health issues they are bound to face if they continue with their existing soda consumption patterns.

One such poster, responding to the risk of being afflicted with diabetes, said, “How about those people who smoke weed but they die at their time…Coke has many things which I have to distract from but about those people who have not disease and smoke in their old age [sic]!”

Another poster, who claims to drink two to three times a day, was genuinely clueless about the co-relation between soft drinks and aging.

The social media managers, who gleefully go on comment-liking sprees to acknowledge praise (and addiction) of followers, are savvy enough to refrain from indulging in controversial debates.

Any effort by dissenters to spark debate is ignored and buried under the avalanche of sycophantic comments.

While I don’t doubt that brands have thousands of genuine followers, having worked in the PR industry, I know that not all comments are organic as the brand and/or its agencies encourage people in their circle of influence to aid them with perception management.

Profiting off illusions

Much as I appreciate our cricketers, they may be the single largest reason for the enormous success of soda brands in Pakistan.

Pepsi, in particular, has cashed in on the popularity of cricket by heavily sponsoring the sport, including striking a deal with the national cricket team.

Though much of Pepsi’s cricket marketing relies on creating a favourable association between the game and the brand, such as with the recent Catch a Crore gimmick, the company doesn’t shy away from linking its product to performance.

Advertisements and social media videos often depict national cricketers drinking Pepsi in the midst of exercise as if the sugar-laden drink provides the perfect set of nutrients to replenish oneself after an intense work-out.

To be sure, much as soft drinks get a bad reputation, there are many athletes who favour carbonated beverages during/after high-intensity competition. The combination of caffeine and sugar can potentially provide a boost that sports drinks lack.

However, while supplements and natural foods can help replenish essential nutrients, soft drinks offer no nutritional benefits, aside from the simple sugars required in post-workout meals.

It’s also important to note that professional athletes burn far more calories than the average person and in the process release a lot more toxins from their bodies, and hence can afford the occasional Coca Cola after a workout, much in the same way that Rafael Nadal can enjoy spoonfuls of Nutella after a gruelling match.

In the case of amateur athletes, though, sodas are more likely to cause bloating and a post-sugar letdown.

But the marketing playbook ignores such nuances. Rather, the goal is to weave a simple narrative — cricket and Pepsi are inseparable or, in Pepsi’s lingo, the two are #MadeForEachOther.

Personally, it’s not hard to imagine impressionable kids falling for that marketing ploy just as I did two decades back.

 How are we going to react?

According to research conducted by Media Bank, advertising on beverages constituted 16 per cent of the total commercial airtime on TV in 2014 in Pakistan, behind only cellular communications ads.

Based on Gallup data from 2013-14 that showed Rs22.97 billion was spent on TV advertising, the share of the beverages industry can be estimated to be about Rs3.6 billion.

This is not inclusive of advertising on other mediums or the costs involved in producing advertising content. Nor does it include the budget spent on public relations or other forms of marketing such as activations.

In sum, this is an industry that spends billions of rupees to prey on the uninformed and the impressionable. But while the large beverage manufacturers celebrate their humungous profits, soda consumers increase their chances of entangling themselves in the worldwide obesity pandemic.

The numbers for the latter, as reported by the Global Burden of Disease Study, are stark — about a third of the world’s adults and a quarter of its children are overweight.

Moreover, 62 per cent of the world’s obese now reside in developing countries, negating the perception that girth co-relates with affluence.

Worst still, Pakistan is ranked as the 9th most obese country.

In these circumstances, is it excusable for brands such as Pepsi or Coke to encourage children to have a soda with every meal?

How would we feel if Kit Kat or Cadbury began advocating for a daily bar of chocolate?

What if Mars was promoted as the perfect dessert that should be eaten daily?

I presume that wouldn’t be acceptable. Then, why do we go easy on the colas?

Is it our collective soft corner for a brand that has been endorsed by so many of our national heroes — and by extension, we have granted a reprieve to the entire industry?

Or perhaps our silence speaks to our apathy.

Or maybe we are just so delighted at the investment these corporations bring in that we have decided that a trade-off for our children’s deteriorating health is perfectly acceptable.

Whatever the reason, surely we, as a society, need to push back for the sake of our public health.

We did the right thing before when we banned advertisements of tobacco products.

Perhaps the soft drink industry doesn’t warrant the same reaction but we can certainly impose greater constraints on their promotional activities.

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