40 Ounces of Freedom: Big Soda Fights Bloomberg's Ban

The American soft-drink industry does not want you to think about fatness. Because Bloomberg's ban on large sodas is not about obesity. It's about freedom. Fries. Freedom fries. 

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The American soft-drink industry does not want you to think about fatness. The American soft-drink industry wants you to erase all soda-related images of fatness from your mind. Erase the anonymously obese bodies parading down city streets on the nightly news. Erase the memory of those subway ads with fatty substances oozing out of soda bottles. Erase the text that accompanied them, the obesity warnings en español. Remove the shackles of awareness of calories, portion sizes and obesity rates. Because Bloomberg's ban on large sodas is not about obesity. It's about freedom. Fries. Freedom fries.

Sorry. The brainwashing isn't working yet, American soft-drink industry. But there's still hope. Apparently, you might stop me on the street and attempt to change my mind.

According to Michael M. Gyrnbaum in today's New York Times, the American soft-drink industry has launched an agressive campaign to fight New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plans to ban sugary drinks that are larger than 16 fluid ounces.

Lobbyists from Coca-Cola and other big soda companies have met with mayoral candidates and City Council members. Canvassers hired by the beverage industry are stopping New Yorkers on the street and urging them to sign petitions. Facebook and Twitter pages tell readers to “say no to a #sodaban.”

Big Soda's leading trade group, the American Beverage Association, is leading the efforts to change the dialogue of the soda ban debate from "fat" to "freedom." The Freedom to drink a liter of Mountain Dew.

(Cue the brass band playing the star spangled banner while we drink American-flag-edition Budweiser tall boys with the hand that isn't crossing our hearts.)

According to The Times, the soda industry has created a "grassroots-style coalition" called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices to bring their pro-soda freedom machine to City Council members, and also to the rest of us. Soda executives did not disclose their budget or long-term strategy for the campaign. They told The Times that they are focused on recruiting "local businesses, unions and lawmakers" who will fight for their freedom to Big-Gulp.

On Thursday, the group introduced its first radio spot, a one-minute advertisement featuring “Noo Yawk”-accented actors proclaiming, “This is about protecting our freedom of choice.”

“This is New York City; no one tells us what neighborhood to live in or what team to root for,” says the narrator, as Yankees and Mets fans shout in the background. “So are we going to let our mayor tell us what size beverage to buy?” Adds one Brooklyn-tinged voice: “It’s unbelievable!”

The American Beverage Association hired some top guns for the campaign, including "the strategists responsible for the 'Harry and Louise' television advertisements that helped defeat President Bill Clinton’s health care plan in the 1990s," according to The Times. In addition to meetings with three of the city's likely mayoral candidates, Big Soda met with four members of the City Council's Black, Asian and Latino Caucus.

The beverage industry — like the tobacco industry before it — has cultivated relationships with minority lawmakers, arguing that minority communities are disproportionately affected by sales regulations.

The fight for freedom will face significant roadblocks in New York City. Bloomberg's ban requires approval from only one place: the Board of Health, whose members were appointed by...Bloomberg. However, Big Soda is hoping that its canvassing and lobbying will bring crowds of protestors to the board's public hearing on the proposed ban, on July 24. (Get your bottle-of-soda costume ready. Or better yet, dress as the Statue of Liberty. Holding a Coca-cola bottle to the heavens. Guiding the tired, poor, huddled masses to "Noo Yawk" City.)

So, how is the Bloomberg administration reacting to Big Soda's campaign?

“There’s an impartial group of health experts who are going to make the decision,” deputy mayor Howard Wolfson told The Times. “I think they will be influenced by science, and not any P.R. campaign.”

No P.R. campaigns? That's strange. Because according to The Times:

The city has also waged a campaign to influence public opinion. Since 2009 it has run five waves of advertising, in subways, in print, on the Internet and on television, linking soda consumption to obesity. The campaign has cost $2.8 million, 87 percent of which was paid by the federal government.

When we talk about public relations, it helps to consider the man who is widely considered to be the founding "father of P.R," Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays. Bernays convinced Americans that bacon and eggs were the true all-American breakfast and that smoking in public was both glamorous and a step towards women’s rights. He convinced Americans, when they were opposed to the first World War, that the war’s purpose was to spread Democracy, and it was therefore noble and worth fighting. He convinced Americans that normal people, not just the wealthy, should buy Wall Street stock. Bernays was certain that he could convince Americans of anything, because their instincts were to follow a trusted leader rather than analyze the facts themselves. He believed that people had an inner desire to be controlled, and since the masses were not smart enough to govern themselves, society would actually benefit from mind control.

In his 1928 book Propaganda, Bernays asked, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses…without them knowing it?”

Bernays worked for government and for big business. His philosophies and tactics are quintessential to what we now call "public relations," as well as advertising. (The psychologist working for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? She traces back to Bernays too.) We can now see them play out on both sides of the soda ban fight. For example:

  • We are not smart enough to govern ourselves, therefore the government needs to limit our portion sizes so we don't become obese. 
  • We have an inner desire to be controlled, and to wind our emotions into words like "freedom," rather than a bunch of obesity statistics that we'd have to analyze ourselves. We just need someone -- like the American Beverage Association -- to tell us the answer. 

I don't know the answer, but I was told that it's plastics.  For now, let's just say it's freedom, with a side of fries.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.