How far will Big Soda go to keep people from drinking water?

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Soda companies have no shortage of slick tactics to get people — especially kids — to buy their products. They spend billions to infiltrate schools, plastering buses and billboards with their logos; they track and target youth online; they even send ads straight to teens' cell phones. And although research has shown that sugary drinks are linked to diabetes and other chronic diseases, instead of doing the responsible thing and reining in their marketing, soda companies have been doing the opposite, and ratcheting up efforts not only to sell their products but also to discourage people from drinking water.

One of the most shameful examples is Gatorade's recent "Bolt" video game. Part of an ad campaign that ran during 2013, the game features an avatar of champion Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt running a course in which getting hit by water slows him down and gathering Gatorade makes him go faster. The company explained that this portrayed "Gatorade as the hero, helping fuel a better performance and higher score, and water as the enemy, a choice that will hinder your performance."

Although "Bolt" received some advertising industry awards, it should be recognized for what it really is: a misleading, cynical and potentially damaging attempt to downgrade the healthful properties of water and promote the use of an expensive and, for most people, unnecessary sugar drink.

The advergame has been downloaded several million times, and played 87 million times, mostly by Gatorade's key demographic, 13-24 year olds. Marketers boast that the advergame "drive(s) home the messaging that Gatorade helps you perform better than water."

To undermine the benefits of water is irresponsible. It goes over the line.

Gatorade seeks to diminish the value of water because water is Gatorade's biggest competitor. However, in doing so, Gatorade promotes the largest single source of sugar in the diets of U.S. children and adolescents, accounting for 240 calories per day among 2-19 year old sugar drink consumers. The consequences are dire: precursors of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are already present in obese youth. Compelling randomized studies have demonstrated a clear association of sugar drinks with pediatric obesity, and decreased intake of sugar drinks reduces weight gain and obesity.

Although Gatorade's Bolt entry was removed last month from the Interactive Advertising Bureau's award winners gallery — likely because of an outcry from public health advocates — the company's other marketing tactics remain problematic. Gatorade is especially aggressive when it comes to targeting African American youth. Out of all sugary drink websites, contains the most pages featuring black actors, and 38% of Gatorade TV ads feature black celebrity athletes only. Such targeted advertising reflects an effort to increase consumption among a subgroup of children whose rates of obesity and risks of obesity-related diseases are already substantially higher than those of other populations.

A 2007 report from the Institute of Medicine stated that sports drink consumption should be restricted to athletes only during prolonged, vigorous activities. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that pediatricians warn their patients and parents that "routine ingestion of carbohydrate-containing sports drinks by children and adolescents should be avoided or restricted" because they increase the risk of obesity. The Academy urged pediatricians to promote water, not sports drinks, as the principal source of hydration for children and adolescents. Water is free, contains no calories, and is what the body needs. Water is not the enemy.

PepsiCo, the parent company of Gatorade, is not alone in its effort to downgrade water consumption. Coca Cola's "Cap the Tap" campaign is equally culpable. The campaign urges restaurants not to offer water in order to increase sugar drink sales.

Big Soda's programs to promote sugar drinks over water are hypocritical and contradict the companies' avowed commitment to wellness. Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo support Michelle Obama's "Drink up!" campaign, which is designed to promote the consumption of water. Furthermore, the Bolt advergame belies PepsiCo's assertions that "major food companies such as PepsiCo are in a unique position to be leaders in health and wellness." PepsiCo's VP of corporate affairs in Mexico, Jorge Meyer, has recently said, "We don't want to be seen as the guilty ones. We want to be seen as part of the solution." It is hard to understand how campaigns that diminish water — a fundamental pillar of nutrition and health — help accomplish that goal. Although the goals of public health may be at odds with market share and stock prices today, public values and purchasing patterns are shifting. A misleading marketing strategy at odds with core values will undermine trust.

Most marketers will likely dismiss our concerns, even if they agree that kids should drink more water. Or they'll simply make empty promises to do better. But it's hard to take Big Soda's word seriously when we see campaigns like Bolt and Cap the Tap. PepsiCo needs to honor its commitment to health and wellness in word and deed, and strive to win awards for advertising campaigns that help rather than hinder parents' efforts to raise healthy children.

William Dietz is the former director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lori Dorfman is the Director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group.

This blog has also appeared on BeyondChron.

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