Following several days of public smackdown, Pepsi has announced that it has pulled the ad it released on Tuesday. Yes, that ad, the one that featured Kendall Jenner teaching us that in order to make peace with riot police during curiously cheerful acts of civil disobedience, all one needs to do—or, at least, all a fabulously wealthy white supermodel needs to do—is offer the cops a smile and a refreshing can of Pepsi.
The tone-deaf ad centered on a mock protest involving attractive Millennials, holding toothless signs, gathering for some nondescript purpose—although given that the actors are almost painfully multicultural, we're encouraged to ask: Is this a Black Lives Matter rally? An anti-Trump immigration protest? A women's rights march?
None of the above, of course. It's a Pepsi ad, co-opting social justice causes to sell soda. Sure, the ad is gone now, but let's not miss one particularly disturbing point: This is far from the first and only time in recent memory that a soda company has appropriated a social protest movement to sell products. For years, allegations have been circulating that Big Soda companies have taken to creating and fostering faux grassroots protest groups to stand against soda taxes. Soda companies have included opposition to soda taxes on their corporate agendas for some time now, and that's justifiable—obviously, the taxes will cut into their profits. The thing is, though, that activists claim their approach is questionable. Evidence suggests that the soda companies are hiding behind protest groups—largely of their own creation. In other words, Big Soda has orchestrated anti-soda-tax protests that appear to be grassroots—but aren't. Clever, right? Example number one: Back in 2014, The Coalition for an Affordable City seemed to be a grassroots group that was protesting a proposed soda tax in San Francisco. The group spent more than $9 million to defeat a single item on a local ballot. But guess what? "The Coalition for an Affordable City is a fake astroturf front group of the American Beverage Association, which is funded largely by Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Red Bull and Sunny D," San Francisco Supervisor Scott Weiner revealed. The group, which openly admitted it was funded by the American Beverage Association, actually went so far as to hire people on Craigslist to be paid sign holders for $13 an hour. They offered the job to an ABC News producer who inquired.
Evidently, that was not a standalone case. Kyle Pfister, the co-founder of the public health consulting firm Ninjas for Health, based in Milwaukee, told MUNCHIES, "Every city that proposes a tax has a fake grassroots group—there have been more than 15 front groups over the years."
Can his assertion actually be true?
Perhaps the upcoming special election in May in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which centers on whether the city should tax sugar-filled beverages in order to fund early childhood education programs, is illustrative. There, a group called Smart Progress New Mexico has been buying broadcast ad time for anti-soda-tax promotions—but it has as of now refused to file a campaign finance statement, which would reveal where the group gets its funding. A spokesperson for the group, Loveless Johnson III, claimed in the Albuquerque Journal this month, "We're not associated with Big Soda. We're just a local group, so the message we're doing is very localized."
Questions about Mr. Johnson's affiliation, though, arise after a cursory glance at his Facebook page, which shows him standing in front of a Steve Penley painting of a bottle of Coke that happens to hang in Coca-Cola headquarters, while wearing a Coca-Cola Ambassadors pin, reserved for insiders to promote the "heart and soul of the brand." Maybe Loveless Johnson III—whose LinkedIn page says he works for MMG Communications Group, based in Atlanta, where Coke is also based—just really likes soda. After all, you can buy the "rare collectible" Ambassador pin on eBay for $59.98, if you're that big of a fan.
MUNCHIES reached out to Smart Progress New Mexico for comment, but has yet to hear back.
Here's another example of what some see as Big Soda's strong-arm tactics delving into grassroots advocacy: Back in 2010, the children's advocacy group Save the Children announced that it was stepping away from its work to promote a soda tax in several states after it was announced that both Coke and Pepsi had made large donations to the organization. Save the Children then claimed that the decision to step away from the soda tax work had nothing to do with the donations, but instead was because the advocacy was not "core to the work" they do and was controversial. As the New York Times recently reported, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine conducted a study that shows that Coke and Pepsi give millions to public health and then lobbies against it—a revelation that demonstrates how corporate social responsibility programs can be manipulated into pure public relations vehicles for the benefit of a corporation's bottom line.
MUNCHIES has reached out to both PepsiCo and the American Beverage Association for comment, but has yet to receive a statement from either.
Gary Ruskin, the co-founder and co-director of US Right to Know—a nonprofit food and agrichemical watchdog group that has broken stories on the soda industry—told MUNCHIES, "It's clear that the soda industry understands that they are pinned against the wall. The public health movement is becoming increasingly powerful and is taking a number of steps to cut soda consumption." According to Ruskin, the soda industry is "desperate and are doing a number of desperate things" including by sponsoring "astroturf front groups."
Ruskin says that the soda industry's funding of nonprofit activist groups is meant to create confusion on soda tax reform among "not just voters, but also policymakers and legislators. They desperately need to look like they are not all alone, so they need to create out of whole cloth voices to defend them, because they are standing all alone. This is how they do it, by creating front groups and shills and the like."
Both Pfister and Ruskin claim that soda companies fund the American Beverage Association, which then funds astroturf local groups. As Ruskin puts it, "That's because nobody is going to believe what Coke and Pepsi say about matters related to soda taxes. They have to look like they are not alone, and so the way they build a chorus is by buying a chorus."
The bottom line is that the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad might not have been as far off the mark as it seemed. Instead of merely depicting a fantasy world in which a soda can bring instant peace to complex social issues, the ad actually suggests a hidden reality: a world in which Big Soda funds fake grassroots protests to support its own interests.
According to The Santa Fe New Mexican, Johnson has now admitted to having done work for Coca-Cola in the past when he owned a media firm, but, as of earlier this week, he still denied that Smart Progress New Mexico gets any funding from Coke or any Big Soda organization or corporation. Meanwhile, Santa Fe's City Attorney's Office has ruled that Smart Progress New Mexico is an "independent expenditure group" and therefore must file campaign finance disclosures with the city. As of today, the organization has not done so.