Washington, D.C., Super Bowl Ad Shows Soda Politics in Action


"They want to put new taxes on a lot of groceries I buy, like soft drinks, juice drinks, sports drinks—even flavored water," said the woman in the commercial. "The government is just getting too involved in our personal lives." This is the crux of the latest ad from Americans Against Food Taxes, which, although it identifies itself as "a coalition of concerned citizens — responsible individuals, financially strapped families, small and large businesses in communities across the country," is actually a marketing campaign created by Goddard Claussen Public Affairs for the American Beverage Association (ABA), "the national voice for the non-alcoholic refreshment beverage industry."

In the D.C. area, the commercial aired during the Super Bowl, and there's a good chance you've already seen it on national cable. According to ABA spokesperson Kevin Keane, it has been running regularly on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX (several times a day on each channel). Deceptive as it may be, this sort of PR is Washington as usual—there's even a term for it, "astroturfing," meaning the creation of fake grassroots groups. What's noteworthy, however, is what Keane told me when I called the ABA to learn more.

The reasons for the recent ad weren't the surprising thing. "We had it running up to and through the election a little bit," he told me, "and now that lawmakers are back in office, we wanted to remind them of the issue and make sure that the public was aware. I mean, look—we know it's a budget year, especially for the states, so we wanted to make sure we have our position on the issue out there."

But when I asked Keane about what other initiatives the ABA is working on, he referred me to another commercial—this one from last year—that could hardly have been more different in style and tone from the anti-tax spot:

Watched one after the other, the two commercials highlight the shape-shifting, paradoxical nature of food-industry public relations. In the first, an angry consumer defends her right to life, liberty, and lemon-lime soda. But then there are beverage delivery men smiling their way to healthier schools, the soda industry looking you right in the eye and saying, "We were naughty, but now we're nice. Trust us." Cue the cognitive dissonance.

During our talk, Keane moved seamlessly into describing the ABA's next marketing initiative, as if it were no different from the anti-tax crusade: a campaign, most likely coming out by the end of February, that will highlight the ABA's new Clear on Calories labels, which will eventually provide calorie information on the fronts of most major soft drinks. The ABA has been working on the labels since early 2010. "We did this last year and announced it in support of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move campaign," Keane said, adding that the first labels appeared a few months ago.

Battling a government that is "too involved in our personal lives"—and claiming you're pals with Michelle Obama. This, as Marion Nestle would put it, is food politics in action.

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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