- Food and drink manufacturers are capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic to increase consumption of unhealthy products such as alcohol, soft drinks and high-fat snack foods, according to a study by the NCD Alliance and the Spectrum Consortium. The majority of instances in which marketing messages were adapted to align with pandemic recovery efforts and capture more customers were in Britain and the United States.
- The report gave hundreds of examples of this corporate behavior, including a Brazilian beer company adapting its logo to look like lungs and telling consumers one of the three tips for pandemic survival is "drink beer for fun," burger companies geo-tracking customers with the lure of lockdown freebies, and soft drink giants donating thousands of cans to the homes of struggling communities in Mexico.
- The two groups who authored the report suggested pushing these products onto consumers further exacerbates the public health crisis by fueling increases in chronic, non-communicable health conditions.
Noncommunicable diseases including diabetes, hypertension and lung problems are the world's biggest killers, leading to 40 million deaths every year, according to the NCD Alliance, which is an international group of more than 2,000 health groups in 170 countries. Obesity is also a major public health concern because it carries a higher risk of a host of health complications. Nearly two billion people worldwide are overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organization. The pandemic has only exacerbated the severity of these conditions on public health as people living with these chronic illnesses often suffer worse outcomes from COVID-19.
But Big Food and Big Alcohol are heavily invested in selling their items. Many companies seem to be working to change their market perception to be equated with promoting and supporting health.
Mars, Diageo and PepsiCo all donated to nonprofits working to mitigate the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 and promoted their philanthropy, the study said. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola also rebranded their cans to feature messages thanking essential workers. By positioning themselves as heroes and partners in the pandemic public health crisis, the study said these companies are appealing to groups of vulnerable workers. They are also looking to engage consumers who want to support those on the front lines.
This is not the first time companies peddling less healthy food have engaged in perception manipulation to promote their products. Studies have found the food and beverage industry used marketing to change perceptions and have pressured officials to influence regulations for years. Last year alone, there were multiple reports indicating Coca-Cola's marketing communications and spending before 2016 had focused on creating an aura of healthiness surrounding their products. Much like Coca-Cola, many of these same companies made public commitments to change, while simultaneously continuing to target vulnerable groups with promotional efforts.
In some countries, Big Food also used lobbying to increase their market share in different countries through relaxing regulations and pushing policymakers to enact legislation to actively promote their products, though there weren't any examples of this happening in the United States. In Europe, alcohol producers lobbied for lower taxes as a crisis measure. In Kenya, alcohol and processed food and beverages made the list of essential items and services.
Both the NCD Alliance and the Spectrum Consortium, a U.K.-based research group focused on disease prevention, have a goal of promoting health through food. It makes sense this research highlights Big Food’s marketing pivot and calls it “an attempt to capitalize on the pandemic and lockdowns.”
While this study may grab the consumers' attention, it is unlikely that it will have long-lasting effects. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have repeatedly been accused of using cause-related marketing to fuel company growth, but the companies have been able to weather the criticism. The other corporations called out in this study will likely be able to do the same.