October 13 2012
A controversial online video released this week by the Center for Science in the Public Interest,The Real Bears, is making waves for the way it portrays what the group says are the health risks of sweetened beverages like soda.
The video, an obvious parody of a series of well-known Coca-Cola ads, features polar bears that grow more obese as they consume soda after soda. As the video progresses, they lose teeth, suffer from impotence, and fall victim to diabetes (which necessitates a leg amputation by chainsaw).
Only in the end, when the bears dump their sodas in the ocean, are they portrayed as happy.
Coca-Cola, for one, is not pleased.
“This is irresponsible and grandstanding and will not help anyone understand energy balance,” says Coca-Cola spokeswoman Susan Stribling in a USA Today piece on the video. “It also distorts the facts while we and our industry partners are working with government and civil society on real solutions.”
In spite of the backlash against the video, I actually find portions of it attractive for several reasons.
First, I think it’s very well done and clever. Is it truthful? Not really, though CSPI paints it as a truthful response to soda industry “lies.” Persuasive? Not exactly. Though the video’s theme song is a syrupy Jason Mraz warning against “sugar,” CSPI has been explicit in promoting the video as an “anti-soda” clip. I don’t think they succeed there. But, as a professor currently teaching an undergraduate class on food and social media, I expect this campaign will be a great teaching tool. Maybe my students will see it differently.
Second, it’s a fantastic addition to the marketplace of ideas—which is exactly where debates over food should be hashed out. Civil society can and should provide consumers with information that can help us make better choices—as I noted last week while a panelist on KCRW’s To the Point program alongside Marion Nestle and others.
That’s a point I’ve made before, as in this Northeastern University Law Journal article on food safety earlier this year—in which I even invoke CSPI and Nestle:
[Thomas] Jefferson points… to the role of civil society in helping ensure our food is safe. Rather than subjecting opinion to coercion, we should subject it to debate within the marketplace of ideas. Such is the public sphere where advocacy groups with markedly different views of nutrition and health—including the Center for Science in the Public Interest (which publishes the often-excellent Nutrition Action Healthletter), as well as vegan, Paleo, organic, and myriad other groups… scholars like Nestle and [Michael] Pollan, business leaders, the legal community, and others[—]can debate issues and ideas on food and food safety, and where the public can turn for guidance and answers.
But, as Jefferson warns, coercion has no role to play in our decisionmaking. We may render to God and/or Caesar certain limited powers, but individuals retain the rest. In short, it’s up to us to pick and choose which information we follow.
And it’s that point that’s perhaps the most important one the CSPI video makes—intentionally or not. Through words and visuals, the video argues that individuals have both the power and responsibility (“The power’s in your hands”—er, “claws”) to make changes to their own diets and to those of their families.
This is a distinct departure from CSPI’s traditional approach—which includes dozens oflawsuits over several decades against food producers and sellers and longstanding calls to restrict the marketing of foods CSPI considers unhealthy.
Why should this new message matter? Why distinguish the message from the messenger?
Imagine if you will a group that spends decades urging the government to crack down on a particular type (or types) of food it considers to be unhealthy. The group long argues that consumers have little choice but to consume that food because it and its advertising are so pervasive as to make consumers powerless to avoid the food.
Suppose that one day the group produces a video that shows for perhaps the first time that it believes it is consumers who have the real power to make the choice to eat that food (or not). The group still argues the product is unhealthy—and, for effect, inflates the case against the food. But instead of arguing that government should crack down on the food, they cite some science they claim supports their argument and urge consumers to decide for themselves. They also steer clear in the video of any calls for taxes, bans, or other restrictions on individual freedom of choice as pertains to the food.
Instead, the message in the video is that we all can and should take control of our own diets. Imagine if the video even had a catchy jingle—with lyrics like “The power’s in your hands!”—that reinforced its message of choice.
I’d cheer the group on publicly for seeing the light.
But if and when the group ever reverted to its previous position—that people are powerless and the power's not in your hands, so lawsuits and bans should follow—I’d feel empowered to refer again and again to the group’s own contradictory words on the issue.
That’s how I feel about The Real Bears.
And I’m not alone among those who don’t back CSPI’s anti-soda agenda in liking some facets of the video.
“If this is a new move in the direction of personal responsibility, [then] welcome,” said Jeff A. Stier, a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, to CSPI head Michael Jacobson in an appearance Thursday on CNBC’s Closing Bell.
“Consumer groups play an essential role in a free market by [helping] individuals to make informed choices,” says Michelle Minton, fellow in consumer policy studies with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Yet, I worry that what CSPI is doing with this clever and entertaining ad is spreading the message that soda in any quantity is a bad choice, justifying taxes, bans, and other government intervention to protect consumers from their own choices.”
“While I applaud the CSPI’s nod to the importance of parental guidance in a child’s nutritional development, this video is nothing new,” Julie Gunlock, director of the Women for Food Freedom Project with the Independent Women’s Forum, tells me. “[I]t relies on the same old exaggerations, scare tactics and outright lies for which the CSPI is well known.”
It’s true, as Minton and Gunlock note, the video relies on several exaggerations—beyond the mere fiction of soda-drinking bears—found in the video.
For example, people don’t consume sugary drinks in the vacuum they’re portrayed in The Real Bears. When the bears open up their fridge, we see it’s stocked to the hilt only with soda (save for a vial of insulin). People largely can’t subsist on any one food—whether it’s soda, caviar, or kale—and expect to be healthy. The same probably holds true for bears (save, I guess, for pandas and bamboo).
And the citations accompanying the video don’t always support the claims in the video. For example, CSPI cites the federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to stand for the proposition that “[s]ugary drinks are the single-largest source of calories in the American diet, providing an average of about 7 percent of total calories per person[.]”
But according to Table 2-2 in that same report, “Top 25 sources of calories among Americans ages 2 years and older,” sweetened drinks come in fourth on the list (behind grain-based desserts, bread, and chicken), and provide just 5.3 percent of total calories per person.
I noted some similar data issues in an unsupported claim made by New York City health department head Thomas Farley--used to justify passage of the city's soda ban--over the summer here.
While CSPI and Farley appear falsely to claim data supports key portions of their arguments against soda, consider too what supported data does say: Over the past decade, people have become more obese even as they drink less sweetened soda.
Still, whether or not the science in CSPI's video is correct, the video represents a refreshing break from a seemingly constant cycle of litigation and calls for more regulation.
If CSPI will proceed from this day forward by trying to influence public opinion while respecting that individuals have both the power and responsibility to make their own food choices—as the video shows and says—without taxes, bans, or other restrictions on individual freedom of choice, then that’s a message I’m more than willing to bear.