Today, saying that soda is bad for kids is a relatively acceptable statement. Most people, in general, understand that soda drinks simply aren’t good for us. Soda producers know this as well seeing they’ve reacted creating “diet” versions of their core products which typically end up as worse, more dangerous, versions of their original counterparts. Coca-Cola is notorious for their advertisement campaigns that paint a completely opposite story, typically a world uniting narrative featuring the thin and healthy.
Unfortunately, soda is making everyone fat. And now Coca-Cola, in desperation, is trying to change the persona of their prized sodas.
A new write up by investigative journalist, Paul Thacker, alleges that Coca-Cola paid off journalist in order to influence them. Essentially, Coca-Cola was hoping to downplay the sugar and obesity connection. The documents were obtained under Freedom of Information laws. Thacker even claims Coca-Cola paid off journalism conferences. 4
Industry money was used to covertly influence journalists with the message that exercise is a bigger problem than sugar consumption in the obesity epidemic, documents obtained under freedom of information laws show. The documents detail how Coca-Cola funded journalism conferences at a US university in an attempt to create favourable press coverage of sugar sweetened drinks. When challenged about funding of the series of conferences, the academics involved weren’t forthcoming about industry involvement.
Thacker goes on to note that products such as Coca-Cola notoriously relate their sugar-laden drinks to a sport so that they can make it seem that it is OK to drink their sodas so long as people exercise.
As Yoni Freedhoff, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa, told The BMJ, “For Coca-Cola the ‘energy balance’ message has been a crucial one to cultivate, as its underlying inference is that, even for soda drinkers, obesity is more a consequence of inactivity than it is of regularly drinking liquid candy.”
Making the connection to paid off journalist following through with their good press coverage…
The six figure bill for funding these journalism conferences was more than repaid in favourable press coverage, say critics. Documented evidence of the industry’s covert influence on the media is rare. In 2004, researchers examined secret documents made public during tobacco litigation. Attempting to derail the effect of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 1993 report on secondhand smoke, the tobacco industry successfully placed stories in major print publications about the report’s “scientific weakness” to help “build considerable reasonable doubt . . . particularly among consumers,” the researchers wrote.1 They concluded that even journalists can fall victim to well orchestrated public relations efforts, regardless of the quality of the science used in these PR exercises.
The article goes on to cite a number of examples. Coca-Cola “donated $1m to the University of Colorado, home institution of the Global Energy Balance Network’s president, James Hill, a professor of pediatrics.” Another baffling example was CNN. “A CNN reporter attended the 2014 journalism conference and later contributed to a story that argued that obesity’s cause could be a lack of exercise, not the consumption of sugary soft drinks.”
“Critics told The BMJ that Coca-Cola’s $37,000 support for that particular conference and the resulting story was a better bargain than an advertisement placed on CNN’s website.”
Some months after the event, Hill emailed a Coca-Cola executive and described the conference as a “home run,” adding, “The journalists told us this was an amazing event and they generated a lot of stories.” Hill continued, “You basically supported the meeting this year . . . I think we can get many more sponsors involved next year.”
Journalist Kristin Jones called the entire scam out, but was told it was no big deal. The Foundations President, Bob Meyers, essentially fired off Jones’ complaints to professors at the University of Colorado.
“The funding for this came from our general educational grant resources.” Months later, Peters emailed Coca-Cola executives a report on the 2014 journalism conference, thanking them for the “educational grant that supported this work.”
“I feel like I was lied to,” Jones told The BMJ. Jones no longer works as a journalist but said that she would not have attended the conference had she known of Coca-Cola’s funding.