You Say Exploitation, I Say Marketing

Sept. 16, 2020

Just how should food companies advertise during the pandemic?

I hate warm and fuzzy BS as much as I do any other kind. I really dislike efforts by large corporations and other organizations to benignly gloss over issues that are, in reality, complicated and controversial. Kendall Jenner, go hand out Pepsi at home.

That’s why I did my fair share of eye-rolling when I began to see those “we’re all in it together” TV commercials during the pandemic. Those became especially annoying once food processors, grocers and others in the food chain began clawing back the bonuses and pay increases they had awarded their “front-line hero workers.”

But backlash can also go too far. In that category I have to put a report I recently came across, from the NCD Alliance and the Spectrum Consortium, two overseas organizations that deal in public health. The report basically accuses the food industry, at all levels, of exploiting the pandemic.

The report states that companies that deal in “unhealthy” commodities are “leveraging” the pandemic to burnish their own images and increase their business. Food and beverage isn’t the only villain: they take on fossil fuel suppliers, the gambling industry, and more. But food and beverage is a special target, with processors including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Diageo and others getting called out.

“Companies rapidly adapted their marketing efforts to reference the health and social concerns associated with the pandemic,” one of the report’s authors stated. “A common tactic we found was also to link products with the efforts of health professionals, health emergency services, and other frontline workers.” Other nefarious tactics included corporate responsibility programs and donations related to the pandemic, and gimmicks like promotions related to quarantine or social distancing, or masks with logos or advertising.

I guess you could see all this as an insidious effort to exploit a global tragedy. Or you could just call it what I do: Marketing.

The pandemic is the defining event of this year and beyond, dominating the lives of pretty much everyone in the world. For a major (or minor) food processor to utterly ignore the pandemic in its marketing plans would be foolish. Naturally they’re going to make themselves look as good as possible in connection with it; what else is the point of marketing?

Let’s face it: Anyone who markets unhealthy food can expect to butt heads with the likes of the NCD Alliance and the Spectrum Consortium. The pandemic shouldn’t be used for bathetic appeals for sympathy, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for gratuitous industry bashing either. Sugar water and fried starch can be criticized perfectly well on their own lack of merits, without dragging the pandemic into it.

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