Is It Exploitation for Soda Companies to Target Minorities?

Pepsi picked Kanye West to star in a commercial that debuted during this year’s MTV Video Music Awards in August. Soda companies are in intense competition for the minority market. (PR Newswire)
Pepsi picked Kanye West to star in a commercial that debuted during this year’s MTV Video Music Awards in August. Soda companies are in intense competition for the minority market. (PR Newswire)

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)” (Oxford University Press, 2015), edited for length.


In 2013, the Hispanic Institute issued a report about how sugary drinks affect the health of its community. The institute, based in Washington, urged its constituents to stop collaborating with soda companies. Its report called the community to action: “The negative effects of sugary drinks, other bad food choices and lack of regular exercise on the health of the fastest-growing group in America will continue until Hispanics use their considerable political clout to influence public policymaking and their economic strength to influence purveyors of those products.”

In an interview, institute president Gus West said, “Of course, we’re responsible for what we eat and drink . . . but we’re also subject to the effects of massive advertising and misleading promotional campaigns — especially on our children and the poor.” Community organizations, he said, need “to walk away from funding by the processed-food and big sugary-drink companies.” Hispanic organizations “broke with tobacco companies” in the 1990s, he said, and now need to do the same with soda companies.

Obesity changes the game. It forces Hispanic and African Americans to reexamine their relationships with soda companies. Some members of these communities once viewed this targeted marketing as a testament to their rising economic and social status within American society. While some continue to prize the efforts of soda companies to advertise in their publications and support their organizations, the rising prevalence of obesity in their communities led others to view such relationships as exploitative. To some community leaders, soda companies echo the actions of tobacco companies in the ways they market to groups most vulnerable to the harm caused by their products.

Soda companies have an exceptionally complicated relationship to racial and ethnic minorities in the United States.

Within these diverse communities, those most likely to benefit from soda industry marketing and philanthropy are usually those least likely to bear the burdens of soda-related health problems. The unequal distribution of costs and benefits in part explains why some prominent minority organizations support the industry in its opposition to public health measures such as soda taxes or size caps. In this context, the Hispanic Institute’s call to action broke new ground.

African and Hispanic Americans drink more sodas and — no surprise — display a higher prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes than their white counterparts. Although 55 percent of whites say they routinely drink regular (sugar-sweetened) sodas, nearly 70 percent of African and Hispanic Americans report doing so, and these groups generally drink less diet soda. When asked, they say that their soda-drinking habits are strongly influenced by television advertising, especially when commercials feature celebrities of their own race or ethnicity.

African and Hispanic Americans (particularly Mexican Americans) also display a higher prevalence of overweight and obesity than their white counterparts. Obesity is a principal risk factor for type 2 diabetes, and you might guess that its prevalence is higher among African Americans and Hispanics than in whites. You would be right. Its prevalence is nearly twice as high.


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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Marion Nestle

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