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Are Coca Cola's Donations for Public Parks Just "Sugarwashing"?

Are Coca Cola's Donations for Public Parks Just "Sugarwashing"?

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

Coca Cola's public relations firm just won an industry award for its campaign to get Americans to vote for their favorite park. The beverage giant donated $175,000 total to the three top vote-getters, a sizable boost to the parks, but an insignificant drop in Coca Cola's staggering profits. From Ragan's PR Daily, which bestowed the award:

For a campaign that relied on the participation of a busy and time-strapped public, it delivered. More than 13 million votes were cast, 38,000 park photos uploaded and more than 17,000 videos viewed online.

I always find it instructive to look at public relations industry awards, because they reveal the sophisticated ways in which marketers try to greenwash, pinkwash, and, yes, sugarwash their way into consumers' hearts and minds.

In this case, Coca Cola teamed up with the National Park Foundation, America's State Parks, the National Recreation and Park Association and the Women's Basketball Association – along with fitness impresario Jake "Body by Jake" Steinfeld and celebrity Ryan Seacrest to burnish its corporate image; the company has been donating to parks for more than 40 years, according to a campaign press release and fact sheet.

Here at Center for Health Journalism Digital, Antidote's William Heisel has examined how Coca Cola funds youth sports and school playgrounds, even as claims it doesn't market to children under 12.

Here's another way local governments could raise money to improve parks – and potentially help reduce obesity and diabetes: levy a soda tax. But as Coca Cola and other sugared beverage makers grow roots deep into communities' parks and schools, that's more and more becoming politically unfeasible.

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Comments

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Hello Barbara
Thanks for this perspective, and also for linking to my Ethical Nag piece on sugarwashing. Surprising examples include Pepsi (which gave $5 million to Save The Children, an organization that then decided to drop its advocacy campaign to tax sweetened soft drinks) - but that list is a distressingly long one.

As a person with 30+ years experience in the public relations field, I too am interested in which agency is winning which awards for which industry-funded campaign on behalf of which non-profits.

I'm equally concerned with the growing emergence of the Patient Engagement movement (not to be confused with patient empowerment, which appears to be truly an insider grassroots trend).

Patient engagement on the other hand may sound like nice folksy concept (David Chase at Forbes called it "the blockbuster drug of the century" in September) but this particular patient movement is ripe for what amounts to an industry-driven takeover.

A browse of related online communities reveals that many members in Patient Engagement forums actually work for companies who stand to gain financially by (as one Patient Engagement consulting firm's website claims) "engaging patients through clear, concise, pertinent care information that activates desired behaviors." Such desired behaviors include, for example, drug compliance - a clear boon to drugmakers given that 20-30% of North American prescriptions are never filled at the pharmacy, and only 50% of people complete a full course of meds even when filled.

If I were running a drug company, I too would be spending a lot of time and money on infiltrating patient forums by hiring Patient Engagement strategists.

Another Patient Engagement site promises to deliver more customer traffic to your hospital or medical practice, describing their service as "an innovative business solution that drives patients directly from (our site) to your existing physician referral line!"

This is every bit as devious as corporations shilling junk food who seek to form strategic liaisons with non-profit health organizations under the guise of good corporate citizenship. Who could possibly fault that?

I hope that you'll one day look into this Patient Engagement movement for future columns.
regards,
C.

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