Of Big Gulps, PR Ethics, Courage and Hidden Identity

Is it ethical for a company to hide its identity when it enters into robust public discussion of important social issues? Is it decent?

Is it ethical for PR people to be part of this charade?

Some big businesses apparently have the backbone of a Hostess Twinkie. If news and blog reports are accurate, Philip Morris, Wendy’s and Coca-Cola are some of the companies that are behind a clever and arresting ad campaign against New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to fight obesity by banning restaurant sales of sugary drinks in bottles and cups larger than 16 ounces.

The ads are put up by ConsumerFreedom.com. At its website, the “consumer” group, The Center for Consumer Freedom, says:

Many of the companies and individuals who support the Center financially have indicated that they want anonymity as contributors. They are reasonably apprehensive about privacy and safety in light of the violence and other forms of aggression some activists have adopted as a “game plan” to impose their views, so we respect their wishes.

Images of hordes of crazed tofu eaters and green tea drinkers with pitchforks and torches storming corporate headquarters to extract vengeance.


Obesity is epidemic. We all pay the price, through our health insurance premiums and taxes, for the health damage obesity causes. So — as is true with stemming the health costs of smoking through anti-smoking campaigns — this is a fair issue for public debate. Should government protect public health through laws? We ban asbestos in insulation because it causes cancer. We ban drinking while driving because it kills and maims people. We ban cigarette advertising on TV because it can lure young people into starting smoking. It’s no coincidence that obesity in America has risen while beverage companies have moved from 12-ounce serving sizes to 16, 24 and more.

Should the foods and drinks that cause health-destroying obesity be regulated? And, if so, how? Fair questions, and all sides should be heard in a spirited public debate.

But many on one side lack the courage to put their names behind their messages.

Yes, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s (and I’m sure others) have come out publicly against Bloomberg’s ban, so they have the courage to oppose this issue in daylight. But there is something pernicious about advertising that hides its funders. That’s one of the issues in Citizens United. There is a big difference between a consumer reading that Coca-Cola opposes the ban and a consumer seeing a clever full-page ad that stirs the consumer’s emotions without disclosing who’s behind the ad.

The Center for Consumer Freedom was apparently founded by Philip Morris to fight smoking restrictions. Their purpose? To help consumers or to sell more products?

Over and over, in the PR business, we form corporate-created and corporate-funded “consumer groups” to push a business message. Is that ethical? Are we okay with that? Is it ethical to form front groups and not disclose who’s behind them?

When I was an impressionable new PR person, our client, Northwest Airlines, asked the PR firm I worked for to get people to call into a radio debate on public financing for airline maintenance and service centers. The question of whether it was good for Minnesota to spend tax dollars to create jobs in Minnesota and keep an important business in the state was a fair one to debate. I was uncomfortable, though, with the request to salt the mine, to get paid to prompt people to call in and support the airline’s position. Astroturf.

Should PR people be part of these kinds of lurking-behind-the-scenes campaigns? What do you think, gentle readers?

— Bruce Benidt

12 thoughts on “Of Big Gulps, PR Ethics, Courage and Hidden Identity

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Fabulous and timely piece! The same might be asked of law firms representing clients they know to be guilty of the transgressions, and nonetheless litigate to suppress the public information that would reveal what they know to be true. Gross abdication of moral responsibility for one thing–the almighty dollar. It’s the unwitting public that loses in these situations.

    Recently I had a conversation with an attorney representing an author accused of plagiarism. But what if the accusations were true I asked him. If he thought it was true he told me he wouldn’t take the case. Good man!

  2. PM says:

    As a matter of public policy, i think that Bloomberg’s initiative is pretty poorly designed, and would face terminal legal challenges (why let off giant frappicinos instead of sodas?).

    Best approach would be some kind of a tax on sugared drinks. If you want less of something, make it more expensive by taxing it. This is the approach that has worked well with smoking.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      PM, I agree with you about taxation being the most effective policy tool. No doubt about it. But great advertising and promotion often leads to changes in the political environment necessary to enact those most effective tools. Effective ads are often a necessary precursor to enactvment of the most effective policies. That’s how it worked in tobacco control and many other issues.

      Bruce, I’m with you on having more disclosure from donors and the PR firms they’re hiring. I’m not smart enough to know the legal/constitutional boundaries of disclosure requirements, but more disclosure would lead to more informed voters and probably better behaved sponsors and PR firms.

      1. Dennis Lang says:

        Yeah, kind of unfortunate a simpler sense of individual civic conscience isn’t adequate to establish an appropriate transparency, and it may require being “legislated in” to achieve it. But, heck, I don’t have clue of how the PR profession is supposed to work. Probably ends justifies the means, like most things in life.

      2. Erik says:

        Right on. Thus, there’s not really a moral dilemma for Big PR, or those who work for Big PR. There’d be no moral question about setting up an Astroturf front group to say oppose the NRA or the Tea Party (Coffee Party anyone?).

        So the real question is, is Bloomberg one the right track here? It’s a very tough call.

        Figure, those impacted by the big gulp ban are not the 1%ers or even the middle class. Its fattie proles and lumpen proles. Various down and outers. As this is an important Democratic voting bloc, you don’t want to be hectoring them so much that they start being receptive to the libertine blather of the TPers.

        You also have to wonder if there’s not an environmental net benefit to fat people dying early naturally. And an administrative net benefit, where they die before they’re denied care by the death panels.

        On the other hand, a successful Big Gulp ban would give precedence to greater government presence and participation in people’s lives. Might be worth the trouble.

        Like I said, very tough call.

      3. PM says:

        The problem, Erik, is that fat people don’t die nearly early enough. our medical care is too good about keeping them alive for far too long. It is truly amazing how long these fatties can survive with enough insulin–and the rest of us just pay more and more and more, while they eat themselves into a late grave–getting their stomach stapled and then regaining the weight, having a heart replacement, and hip and knee replacements. Probably all going to be getting free liposuction, too, when we finally get some socialized medicine in place.

        Maybe a solution would be to eat them…



      4. Erik says:

        What I wonder is, what’s the appeal of the soda ban politically as opposed to just denying the fatties coverage and treatment? It’s probably that it’s too disruptive to the patronage stream. You can’t deny the fattie proles their insulin and obesity treatment and then expect them to keep voting Democrat. So rather it’s the Big Gulp that must go.

        Mine and your frivolity aside, this is the liberal equivalent of conservatives worrying that EBT card money gets spent on chips and cigarettes sometimes. It’s dressed up as a health issue to remove that appearance of low brow gaucheness, but it’s just as intemperate.

      5. PM says:

        I think that the whole thing is rather silly–at least as a policy proposal. It will certainly not accomplish what it is supposed to accomplish (better health outcomes)–it is far too narrow for that (stores will start to offer 2 for 1 deals of 12 oz sodas, for instance, and people will figure out other ways to get equivalent calories)

        Politically, i do not think it is a winner–unless Bloomberg is trying to take on big food companies–picking a fight with someone so he can pretend to be a populist.

        What I find sort of surprising about it is that the closest “liberal” equivalent i can think of is the effort to ban sugar cereal advertising on cartoons on Saturday morning. This was justified by trying to protect an “innocent/helpless” group who were not adults and didn’t understand the consequences of their “addiction” to sugar. But banning Big Gulps doesn’t seem to protect any “helpless” class– the usual “liberal” justification for a nanny state move like this.

        About the only justification for this i can see is that Bloomberg is trying to protect people who are too stupid to think for themselves–and i don’t see that as a good political argument.

  3. Newt says:

    One dirty little secret of health economics is that all people get sick and die – some sooner, some later. But at some point, we all access the system for interventional care and it costs huge sums regardless of who you are.

    To argue that Bloomberg is saving lives and money isn’t so. At very best, he may be prolonging a life. I have a hard time believing NYC libs care that much.

    1. PM says:

      Personally, i find it somewhat ironic that an ostensible Republican (Bloomberg) is the author of this nanny state proposal….

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