Right around the time New York City Mayor Bloomberg announced his proposed ban to limit the size of sugary beverages I noticed a new ad campaign by a group called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices. The ads depicted a silhouetted man holding up a large soft drink cup with the tag line “I Picked Out My Beverage All By Myself.” At first glance, the campaign seems to represent a group of New Yorkers coming together to demand the right to drink high-calorie beverages in whatever size they desire. It’s a powerful message meant to paint the mayor’s initiative as ridiculous and draw on American consumers’ strong belief in consumer choice, while simultaneously diverting attention away from the relationship between soda and obesity rates – but would the message be as potent if it wasn’t coming from “New Yorkers” at all, but public relations specialists representing soft drink companies including Coca-Cola and Pepsi? As it turns out, New Yorkers for Beverages Choices is actually a front group: a PR campaign funded by the American Beverage Association, the Washington DC-based lobbying arm of the soft drink industry.
In her new report Best Public Relations Money Can Buy: A Guide to Food Industry Front Groups, Michelle Simon reveals the truth behind front groups and many of the ads and campaigns we see every day, often without realizing they are meant to manipulate us to support corporate interests. Front groups are the food industry’s response to the public’s growing concern over our industrialized food system and its impact on our health and the environment. They are part of a public relations strategy invented by corporate lobbyists to control the public discourse. Big Food and Big Ag hide behind benevolent-sounding organizations like US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Center for Consumer Freedom and the Alliance to Feed the Future. These groups are named to sound objective and trustworthy, and to be easily confused with non-profit public interest groups like the Center for Food Safety and Food Integrity Campaign. However front groups are well-funded, well-oiled machines meant to push specific corporate agendas on both consumers and policy-makers. The messaging is aggressive – and that stands as a testament to how threatened the industry is by the good food movement and the progress we have made towards accurately informing the public about the problems with our industrialized food system.
In Simon’s report, she unveils the truth behind specific front groups (she provides an extensive list) and dissects their specific messaging strategies (paying scientists and experts to represent them, using fear to motivate consumers, etc.). The report also clarifies the difference between trade groups and front groups – mainly that trade groups lobby and front groups are PR. The most important takeaway from the report is that front groups must be combatted with education and information, and the first step is being able to identify them. By reading and sharing the report you are helping to break down Big Food’s misinformation machine and prove that the truth is more powerful than any savvy PR campaign.
Last month a report calling out the close financial ties between corporate food and beverage companies and registered dietitians group Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) sparked public outcry and highlighted the push for more transparency in th