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Why should this new message matter? Why distinguish the message from the messenger?
Imagine if you will a group that spends decades urging the government to crack down on a particular type (or types) of food it considers to be unhealthy. The group long argues that consumers have little choice but to consume that food because it and its advertising are so pervasive as to make consumers powerless to avoid the food.
Suppose that one day the group produces a video that shows for perhaps the first time that it believes it is consumers who have the real power to make the choice to eat that food (or not). The group still argues the product is unhealthy—and, for effect, inflates the case against the food. But instead of arguing that government should crack down on the food, they cite some science they claim supports their argument and urge consumers to decide for themselves. They also steer clear in the video of any calls for taxes, bans, or other restrictions on individual freedom of choice as pertains to the food.
Instead, the message in the video is that we all can and should take control of our own diets. Imagine if the video even had a catchy jingle—with lyrics like “The power’s in your hands!”—that reinforced its message of choice.
I’d cheer the group on publicly for seeing the light.
But if and when the group ever reverted to its previous position—that people are powerless and the power's not in your hands, so lawsuits and bans should follow—I’d feel empowered to refer again and again to the group’s own contradictory words on the issue.
That’s how I feel about The Real Bears.
And I’m not alone among those who don’t back CSPI’s anti-soda agenda in liking some facets of the video.
“If this is a new move in the direction of personal responsibility, [then] welcome,” said Jeff A. Stier, a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, to CSPI head Michael Jacobson in an appearance Thursday on CNBC’s Closing Bell.
“Consumer groups play an essential role in a free market by [helping] individuals to make informed choices,” says Michelle Minton, fellow in consumer policy studies with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Yet, I worry that what CSPI is doing with this clever and entertaining ad is spreading the message that soda in any quantity is a bad choice, justifying taxes, bans, and other government intervention to protect consumers from their own choices.”
“While I applaud the CSPI’s nod to the importance of parental guidance in a child’s nutritional development, this video is nothing new,” Julie Gunlock, director of the Women for Food Freedom Project with the Independent Women’s Forum, tells me. “[I]t relies on the same old exaggerations, scare tactics and outright lies for which the CSPI is well known.”
It’s true, as Minton and Gunlock note, the video relies on several exaggerations—beyond the mere fiction of soda-drinking bears—found in the video.
For example, people don’t consume sugary drinks in the vacuum they’re portrayed in The Real Bears. When the bears open up their fridge, we see it’s stocked to the hilt only with soda (save for a vial of insulin). People largely can’t subsist on any one food—whether it’s soda, caviar, or kale—and expect to be healthy. The same probably holds true for bears (save, I guess, for pandas and bamboo).
And the citations accompanying the video don’t always support the claims in the video. For example, CSPI cites the federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to stand for the proposition that “[s]ugary drinks are the single-largest source of calories in the American diet, providing an average of about 7 percent of total calories per person[.]”
But according to Table 2-2 in that same report, “Top 25 sources of calories among Americans ages 2 years and older,” sweetened drinks come in fourth on the list (behind grain-based desserts, bread, and chicken), and provide just 5.3 percent of total calories per person.