Soft drink advertisers want us to think that “smaller” means “small” and “fewer” means “few”

Four large manufacturers of processed beverages—The Coca Cola Company, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Pepsico and SunnyD—have joined forces to fight a common enemy: those small-minded people who worry that Americans are taking in way too many calories through the consumption of the sugar- and chemical-loaded concoctions.

Their weapons of choice are the typical rhetorical devices of advertisers around the world: false comparisons and misleading statements.

The four and the American Beverage Association have been sponsoring full-page print ads that tout how healthy and low calorie many of their products are compared to a few years ago, meaning that collectively, they’re selling fewer calories per container

The headline expresses the theme line of the campaign: AMERICA’S BEVERAGE COMPANIES ARE DELIVERING. Embedded in the text, each line of which is separated from the next by very wide ledding, are the three things that the beverage companies are delivering, in green caps so they stand out:  MORE CHOICES… SMALLER PORTIONS…FEWER CALORIES…

The copy brings to life this assertion by describing actions that the sodapop-mongers have recently taken to make portions smaller and provide lower calorie beverages.

At the bottom are three white delivery men and a black delivery woman, each standing behind a hand truck loaded with beverage products of one of the four sponsoring companies. Pepsico, by the way, has the black woman deliverer. Below that, in the same order as the deliverers, are the four company logos.

As usual with attempts to manipulate the public, the print ad’s call to action is to visit a website: DeliveringChoices.org, where you see the same image of deliverers united below the following legend: “America’s Beverage Companies Are Delivering For You, Your Family And Community. We’re making it easier for people to choose a beverage that’s right for them with more choices, smaller portions, fewer calories and clear calorie labels.” Actually, I saw the ad in the New York Times and it told me to go to DeliveringChoicesNY.org, but it’s the same website as DeliveringChoices.org.

The website gives more details on how those who deliver soft drinks are helping to reduce obesity by offering beverage products with fewer calories and in smaller portions.

The obvious rhetorical problem is the use of the comparative: smaller, fewer.  They don’t say small. They don’t say few. And with good reason.  Soft drinks are for the most part empty calories, except those that don’t have calories, but instead provide chemicals, about which we know little except that they probably create the craving to eat more calories.  In other words, no soft drink is good for you. Smaller is still bad, and so is fewer.

I’m not excited about the choices that the beverage behemoths are offering to children—fruit and vegetable juice—either! The fruit and vegetable drinks are spiked with sugar, while the real juices, healthier than the other fare offered in vending machines to be sure, are not as healthy as eating a piece of fruit or a vegetable. There’s that comparative—healthier—again! They’re also selling water, but I understand that most tap water is pretty healthy for you, and the money saved from buying the bottled water could buy a real piece of fruit.

Subtler than the use of the comparative to make soft drinks seem healthy is the ad’s focus on “more choice.”

On the narrative level, the pop purveyors want us to thank them for adding smaller sizes, diet versions and juice drinks to their mix of offerings.  Below the surface, however, lies a message we have seen before from people wanting to foist shoddy goods on the American public: People should have the choice to smoke in public or not.  People should have the choice of buying unhealthy foods.  People should be able to have an unlimited choice in doctors even if, by limiting that choice a little bit, we can cut healthcare costs by 10% or more.  People should have the choice of charter schools, even if they have been proven in many studies to do a worse job of educating children than the public schools they replace.  Employers should be able to choose if they can impose their narrow views about birth control on their employees.

Of course, more choice applies to television stations available in a cable or satellite TV package, beers on the menu and types of phones sold at your neighborhood electronics store.

Through the steady drum beat over decades of advertising that touts the benefit of more choice, we have come to think of more choice as a benefit in and of itself. When the beverage barons tell us they are offering more choice, they are depending on this association to rub off on the other messages.  In its barest form, the thought process I think they want to engender goes like this: More choice is good. Healthier beverages are good. More choice therefore makes for healthier beverages. It’s a false syllogism, but the world of propaganda is filled with such creatures.

Let’s take the more choice principle one step further. Every single time we eat a meal or snack, we exercise choice.  We are told and have come to believe that exercising choice is good. Therefore we have done something good whatever choice we make, even if the choice is to have a 12-ounce can of Coke or Pepsi for breakfast, with or without the side of toaster tart.  It is this thought process that the beverage companies want you to have. They want you to feel good about eating their crap. If you have that can of pop and feel guilty about it enough times, pretty soon you’ll stop.

Unless, that is, you like to feel guilty, in which case we have a lot of products for you to buy.

 

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