A controversial online video released this week by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, The Real Bears, is making waves for the way it portrays what the group says are the health risks of sweetened beverages like soda.
The video, an obvious parody of a series of well-known Coca-Cola ads, features polar bears that grow more obese as they consume soda after soda. As the video progresses, they lose teeth, suffer from impotence, and fall victim to diabetes (which necessitates a leg amputation by chainsaw).
Only in the end, when the bears dump their sodas in the ocean, are they portrayed as happy.
Coca-Cola, for one, is not pleased.
“This is irresponsible and grandstanding and will not help anyone understand energy balance,” says Coca-Cola spokeswoman Susan Stribling in a USA Today piece on the video. “It also distorts the facts while we and our industry partners are working with government and civil society on real solutions.”
In spite of the backlash against the video, I actually find portions of it attractive for several reasons.
First, I think it’s very well done and clever. Is it truthful? Not really, though CSPI paints it as a truthful response to soda industry “lies.” Persuasive? Not exactly. Though the video’s theme song is a syrupy Jason Mraz warning against “sugar,” CSPI has been explicit in promoting the video as an “anti-soda” clip. I don’t think they succeed there. But, as a professor currently teaching an undergraduate class on food and social media, I expect this campaign will be a great teaching tool. Maybe my students will see it differently.
Second, it’s a fantastic addition to the marketplace of ideas—which is exactly where debates over food should be hashed out. Civil society can and should provide consumers with information that can help us make better choices—as I noted last week while a panelist on KCRW’s To the Point program alongside Marion Nestle and others.
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That’s a point I’ve made before, as in this Northeastern University Law Journal article on food safety earlier this year—in which I even invoke CSPI and Nestle:
[Thomas] Jefferson points… to the role of civil society in helping ensure our food is safe. Rather than subjecting opinion to coercion, we should subject it to debate within the marketplace of ideas. Such is the public sphere where advocacy groups with markedly different views of nutrition and health—including the Center for Science in the Public Interest (which publishes the often-excellent Nutrition Action Healthletter), as well as vegan, Paleo, organic, and myriad other groups… scholars like Nestle and [Michael] Pollan, business leaders, the legal community, and others[—]can debate issues and ideas on food and food safety, and where the public can turn for guidance and answers.
But, as Jefferson warns, coercion has no role to play in our decisionmaking. We may render to God and/or Caesar certain limited powers, but individuals retain the rest. In short, it’s up to us to pick and choose which information we follow.
And it’s that point that’s perhaps the most important one the CSPI video makes—intentionally or not. Through words and visuals, the video argues that individuals have both the power and responsibility (“The power’s in your hands”—er, “claws”) to make changes to their own diets and to those of their families.
This is a distinct departure from CSPI’s traditional approach—which includes dozens of lawsuits over several decades against food producers and sellers and longstanding calls to restrict the marketing of foods CSPI considers unhealthy.