Big Soda Co-Opts Michelle Obama’s Drink Up Campaign

Will Michelle Obama leave a legacy of progress against chronic disease or of complicity in beverage industry propaganda? That question is now at stake as the American Beverage Association has partnered with her health initiatives.

Unfortunately, all indications suggest that Michelle Obama is leaning towards complicity with the beverage industry. Michelle’s public health initiative has partnered with the American Beverage Association, but has denied partnering with Big Soda and does not mention the ABA, Coca-Cola or PepsiCo in its list of partners.

Michelle’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, maintained extremely intimate relations with Coca-Cola. Unlike Hillary, however, Michelle has focused her time as First Lady on addressing childhood obesity. Just how much Michelle achieved in the White House is a matter of intense debate. Mark Bittman condemned her inaction on food policy in the New York Times, whereas the Center for Science in the Public Interest praised her for changing school lunch programs in Vox. When the Obamas leave 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next month, and her husband’s second presidential term ends, Michelle’s public health efforts will continue.

Partnership for a Healthier America is a non-profit organization whose mission is “working with the private sector to end the childhood obesity crisis.” The organization was founded in 2010 “in conjunction with – but independent from” First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Michelle Obama is the honorary chair. In 2013, Michelle and PHA announced their “Drink Up” campaign. The goal was to “encourage everyone to drink more water.” If you read the details, however, they noted that the American Beverage Association was “promoting” the effort.

What does it mean for Big Soda to promote a water-drinking campaign? For one, it’s an obvious opportunity for them to promote PepsiCo’s Aquafina and Coca-Cola’s Dasani brands. Instead of improving the consumption and availability of safe tap water, they could redirect the campaign’s initiative towards promoting branded water.

Bottled water is obviously much more expensive than tap water, even though brands such as Aquafina come from the same source as public tap water. Promoting the American Beverage Association’s branded products could paradoxically discourage overall water consumption. This would likely be a welcome outcome for Big Soda. After all, Coca-Cola’s notorious “Cap the Tap” program is aimed at discouraging tap water consumption in restaurants.

Drink Up does provide a much needed opportunity for Coke and Pepsi to market Dasani and Aquafina though. Apparently they’re struggling to convince consumers to pay a premium for Coke- and Pepsi-branded water instead of virtually indistinguishable unbranded water. As the New York Times reports,

“It’s harder for the companies to compete in the grocery store, where low-margin companies that specialize in water are able to price large multipacks much lower than the soda bottlers want to sell them.”

Drink Up helps solve Big Soda’s bottled water branding problem by pairing Dasani and Aquafina with star athletes. And thanks to Drink Up, it all comes in the guise of a philanthropic public health effort rather than appearing as the corporate marketing strategy it is:

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 10.22.04 AM.png

Major League Soccer Players A.J. DeLaGarza and Rafael Garcia at Drink Up LA. PepsiCo owns Aquafina. Source.

The ABA also can exploit Drink Up as part of its lobbying agenda. For example, the ABA fights public health campaigns against added sugar, as well as proposed soda warning labels and taxes, with its own “Energy Balance” propaganda. The message is clear: don’t worry about removing sugar and soda from your diet. Just move around a bit more and keep enjoying our products. Despite the fall of the disgraced Global Energy Balance Network, Big Soda continues to employ its “balance” message.

Just take a look at the picture ABA CEO Susan Neely tweeted below. “Balance” sure leaves room for a ton of added sugar:screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-10-31-46-amFrom Big Soda Participation to Big Soda Partnership

Back in 2013, when Michelle launched Drink Up, the beverage companies “simply agreed to add the Drink Up logo to packaging and marketing materials nationwide,” according to Politico. Yet significantly, the ABA and its members were not then formal partners of PHA. This is more than a semantic distinction. Formal PHA partners normally sign Memorandums of Understanding with PHA and “unbiased third-party verifiers … report publicly every year on the progress our (PHA’s) partners are making toward meeting their commitments.”

Now in 2016, though, PHA has developed a much closer relationship with the beverage companies. And in so doing, PHA is directly supporting ABA’s lobbying and marketing efforts.

Through its Balance Calories Initiative, the ABA has committed to “reducing calories 20 percent nationwide by 2025,” and has agreed to “focus on 10 communities where rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes are among the highest.” Last month we pointed out that the ABA’s partners for this effort are the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation, two prominent recipients of Big Soda funding. We questioned whether these well-known Big Soda beneficiaries would hold it to its commitment. Big Soda has a record of failing to follow through on its promises. And we know from Coca-Cola’s internal emails that they use calorie commitments as “a key element” in their marketing and anti-regulatory lobbying efforts. Following our blog post, the Balance Calories Initiative admitted that it has failed to make significant progress. Thus it is not on track to fulfill its commitment.

Neely responded to the disappointing Balance Calorie Initiative results, stating, “We’re trying to figure out what engages people … How do you change their buying patterns?”

The ABA CEO might not be telling the whole truth. Big Soda knows better than anyone on Earth how to influence beverage purchasing decisions. It has just chosen to keep spending billions advertising sugar-sweetened beverages. Coca-Cola, for example, chose to respond to health concerns about its products by “hiking its global advertising budget by $1 billion over the next three years, up from $3.3 billion in 2013.” Coke’s “Share a Coke” campaign was so effective that “it temporarily reversed a decade-long decline in U.S. Coke consumption.” If Big Soda really wanted to cut beverage calories, it could stop spending billions to advertise Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, 7-Up, and its other sugar-sweetened beverages.

We might accept El Chapo Guzman as an anti-drug advocate, but only after he stops dealing. Similarly, we might accept Susan Neely as an earnest advocate for cutting sugar, but not while she represents organizations that spend billions marketing sugar-sweetened beverages.


El Chapo and Susan Neely care deeply about your health.

Judging by recent Drink Up events, Michelle Obama and her initiatives have no effective mechanism for warding off Big Soda’s influence. Their Drink Up events are functionally indistinguishable from Big Soda marketing and lobbying campaigns. And this should come as no surprise. The American Beverage Association is an official partner of the Partnership for a Healthier America.

Michelle Obama’s Drink Up events are functionally indistinguishable from Big Soda marketing and lobbying campaigns.

On Dec. 2, Neely tweeted from the launch of Drink Up LA that she was present with the ABA’s “partners,” including PHA.

Screen Shot 2016-12-05 at 10.19.56 AM.png
The corporate branding effect was obvious at the Los Angeles Drink Up event, which doubled as a part of ABA’s Balance Calories Initiative. They handed out PepsiCo and Coca-Cola’s snack food and bottled water brands. The logic appears to be that children suffering from obesity and diabetes require more access to chips and pretzels.

Observers may have wondered what a PepsiCo delivery truck was doing at an alleged childhood obesity event.

Screen Shot 2016-12-05 at 10.26.22 AM.png

Coca-Cola owns Dasani. PepsiCo owns Sun Chips, Stacy Pita Chips, and Rold Gold pretzels.

Drink Up LA pushes water to a few at a time while its partner, Big Soda, spends millions marketing sugar-sweetened soda to millions of Los Angeles residents.

This is akin to El Chapo trying to partner with D.A.R.E. And stranger yet, D.A.R.E. accepted.


A Pepsi Ad in Los Angeles.

This week the ABA confirmed Neely’s tweet by covering the L.A. event and mentioning its partnership with PHA. The Partnership for a Healthier America seems to realize the problem with its ABA partnership. Nonetheless, PHA is not willing to address it frankly to public health advocates.

A Russells’ Blog reader who works in L.A.-area public health efforts recently asked PHA whether the organization was partnered with Big Soda. PHA flatly denied that it maintained any partnership with Coke or Pepsi.

This denial is hard to square with these photos from Drink Up’s L.A. event last week, not to mention the American Beverage Association referring to its partnership with PHA. To be sure, PHA is not explicitly partnered with Coke or Pepsi–but it is certainly partnered with the American Beverage Association, the lobbying arm for Coke and Pepsi, in which Coke and Pepsi are the two most prominent dues-paying members. Partnering with the ABA vs. with Coke and Pepsi: a distinction without a difference.

If PHA is indeed aware that its partnership with Big Soda is a problem, then it has an ethical obligation to end the partnership, and not to make misleading statements and hope public health advocates don’t notice.


Drink Up! (Coke’s Dasani and PepsiCo’s Aquafina)

Beyond PHA’s misleading statements, PHA has not shown much transparency regarding its ABA partnership. It does NOT include the ABA in its partner page, though it includes dozens of other organizations. Similarly it does not list Coca-Cola or PepsiCo, nor their bottled water brands, despite them clearly supplying Drink Up events and putting Drink Up logos on their beverages.

Several questions come to mind. First, how much money has the ABA paid PHA and Drink Up through this partnership? PHA’s financial reports do not shed any light on the subject.

Has the ABA gone through PHA’s normal third party verification procedure? Or is the ABA exempt from the standard procedures other PHA partners go through? PHA’s 2015 Annual Report kept track of outside verification of other PHA partners. It did not contain a single mention of the ABA. Nor does the 2014 report.

Why is information about the Big Soda partnership not available on PHA’s website? The PHA website lists the ABA as a “supporting brand” for Drink Up, but does not give any more details and refrains from referring to the ABA as a partner.


Is advertising Coke and Pepsi’s expensive branded bottled water really the right way to promote overall water consumption in disadvantaged communities?

This September the Drink Up campaign entered its fourth year. Nonetheless, much like PHA itself, Drink Up has managed to skirt its way around some basic questions.

Is Drink Up pushing for water to replace soda, or to supplement it? That is, are they selling “drink water instead of soda” or “drink water and soda in balance?”

The former will help reduce childhood illness. The latter will do nothing to prevent chronic disease, but it will help Big Soda’s bottom line.

All signs point towards Drink Up following the second, industry-friendly strategy. While Neely has talked a bit about encouraging drinking water in order to decrease soda and sugar consumption, Drink Up is mostly mum on this point.

And the results after three years of Drink Up reflect the deliberate decision not to take on soda and sugar. As the firm that evaluated the American Beverage Association’s currently failed calorie commitment noted last month,

“The increase in water — it’s not replacing something else”

As a result, the New York Times notes,

Americans actually increased the volume of beverages they consumed by 2.2 percent from 2014 to 2015, largely because they drank more water.

How convenient for the American Beverage Association. How disastrous for public health. As Vox reported this year, Michelle Obama chose Drink Up specifically as an alternative to speaking up about the calamitous consequences of excessive added sugar consumption:

“(Michelle) Obama chose to promote water instead of warning parents and kids against the sweet stuff.”

The public deserves to know how much Big Soda pays Michelle Obama’s organizations while it enjoys that privilege.

Michelle Obama and her Partnership for a Healthier America and Drink Up initiatives have a moral responsibility to publicly admit they have partnered with Big Soda. They also have a moral responsibility to tell the truth about sugar and not just market Big Soda’s branded bottled water.

It starts with PHA finally listing the American Beverage Association, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in its partner section.


  1. Pingback: Follow Up: Michelle Obama Initiative Privately Admits It Partnered With ABA | THE RUSSELLS

  2. Pingback: Big Soda Co-Opts Michelle Obama’s Drink Up Campaign » North East CrossFit

  3. puddleg58

    Are the CSPI just wrong about everything?
    MO today thinks that fat-free milk, salt limits, and 50% wholemeal flour (not so much whole grains) are her legacy.
    Much as I want to like the Obamas, even today, this is just disastrous. She had 8 years to get it right, but she listened to the CSPI, and her legacy is worthless.

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