When Social Media and Public Perception Collide

A Yale study on soft drink marketing is making headlines, but will it spark a social media backlash?
 When Social Media and Public Perception Collide

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On November 2, the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity released a study following the marketing tactics of major beverage companies like Coca-Cola and Monster Energy, youth exposure to those marketing tactics through different media channels, and the ingredients and nutritional value of each of the brands’ various products.

The results did not leave Yale’s researchers very impressed. Although beverage companies pledged to decrease targeted youth marketing as part of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) in 2006, the study found that the reality deviated greatly from the corporations’ big talk. “Despite industry self-regulation pledges, children are exposed to more - not less - advertising for sugary drinks than they were in 2008,” reads the report synopsis, published online at “Beverage companies are finding sneaky and sophisticated new ways to reach youth.”

Among many major factors identified in the report, one of special note is social media. The beverage companies involved in the CFBAI pledged to decrease their television, radio, and print advertising, but social media was still relatively in its infancy – few people (outside of maybe Zuckerberg and MySpace Tom) could have predicted the massive influence it would have just five years later.

It’s an influence that corporations are taking major advantage of, and beverage companies are no different. The study found that beverage companies aggressively pursue teens through social media, with promotions like My Coke Rewards and PepsiCo’s socially conscious “Pepsi Refresh” campaign. Red Bull is singled out for its use of YouTube (its videos net hundreds of millions of views each), but Coca-Cola was found to be the biggest offender. The corporation has racked up over 30 million fans on Facebook, and isn’t shy about using the tool to communicate with contests, polls, videos, and photos – each status update cementing a bond between the brand and its audience.

According to the report, it works. “Teens were exposed to more ads for regular soda than either children or adults, and two-thirds of sugary drinks consumed by teens are soda and teens drink more soda than adults drink,” reads the report. “In fact, soda is the leading source of calories in teens’ diets.”

The American Beverage Association isn’t convinced. “It’s Halloween, so it should be no surprise that [Yale Rudd Center Director] Kelly Brownell is up to his old tricks in twisting and turning the facts like a Twizzler when it comes to the beverage industry’s strong commitment – and real deliverables – on marketing to children,” reads an ABA statement that suggests they are done taking any guff from the Ivy League. “The report from the Rudd Center is a blatant attempt to undermine a responsible industry’s products and practices at the unfortunate expense of America’s youth – who would be better served with comprehensive studies and programs as part of a broader effort to combat childhood obesity,” they assert, backing up the heated account with initiatives like School Beverage Guidelines and a report from Georgetown Economic Services that notes a 96 percent decrease in soft drink advertisements between 2004 and 2010.

Of course, that 96 percent decrease only applies to television advertising during children’s programming, viewed by children in the 2-11 age range. Social media numbers and influence are a much more difficult to track through views or advertising dollars. Those fan numbers don’t lie, though – companies are getting through to millions every day in extremely subtle ways that look less like advertising and more like friendships.

So the question is this: will parents and consumer watchdog groups start scrutinizing social media outlets in the same way they currently go after TV and print ads? It’s likely. However, in an age when we rely on internet connections for everything from homework to entertainment to basic communications, it’s a lot easier to turn off the TV than it is to unplug from social media. Anyone hoping to keep their kids away from advertising altogether has an awfully steep uphill battle ahead, especially when their kids can literally be friends with Coca-Cola on Facebook. But as long as parents and teachers take the lead in knowing what children are reading and who they’re interacting with, and explaining the difference between genuine friendship and sales pitches, we think the kids will be all right. 

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