School Sit-ups Sponsored by Soda-n-snacks?


Update 2015: When in doubt…buy ’em out. sigh. More Coke and soda obfuscation and payola with registered dieticians, pay for play research, junk science via medical sock puppets and obesity blame game shifting to position Coke as an ‘energy balance’ alternative. (facepalm) Unspeakable public health policy with  targeting kids of color Just really appalling marketing machinations. Glad Mexico’s soda surcharge is at least helping local public health environs…sigh.

One more “Back to School” brand infiltration with ‘Hydration Education’ spin-spotting of sports drinks as “G-force” Gatorade enters schools. NOOOOOO! Where are the woofin watchdogs, people? Seriously! Ugh. Why not just hang a ‘for sale’ sign around the whole country? Horrific shenanigans…

Policy Update 2014: First ever passage/precedent of soda tax in Berkeley, CA! Read more on Shaping Youth: “Now Pouring, Soda Pledges, Politics and Public Health”

Mixed messages, 2013: Coke obfuscation is getting even worse; The Olympics and now the Academy of Nutrition Dietetics are enabling Coke’s branding (not even white-labeled or constrained w/limitation clauses like “Dasani water only”) sending the damaging mixed message to the public sanctioning sponsorship, with implication of fitness/dietary “energy balance” obfuscation.

Total strong-armed sellout.

The Olympics and dieticians and allied orgs/medical foundations with organizational tie-ins (including the government’s Let’s Move disconnect with Beyonce selling soda) need to get a spine, take a stand, fire their policy and practices people undermining the hard work of public health advocates, and overhaul sponsorship agreements as to what they will/will not allow and stand firm.

When Coke chooses to brand under their parent co ‘big red’ (vs line extensions like WATER only or silent fiscal underwriting) they negate the public health message and any corporate social responsibility/good will.

If these sellout orgs can’t see the public interest element for ethical ‘self-rein,’ then ultimately, the regulatory legal beagles will have at it and they’ll be face-palming their lack of insight.

Sure, registered dieticians and nutritionists want to “applaud progress” of junk food giants investing in healthier products, but giving brands carte blanche to devalue health and wellness messaging is a price that will ultimately cost us all. Literally.

(Original article 2006:)

School SitUps Sponsored by Soda, Snacks


Junk food giants marketing fitness with freebies

ranks right up there with dentists handing out lollipops.

There’s the instantaneous glee of snagging a promo, followed by the pause, double-take, and quizzical, “um, wait a sec…that’s a bit of a disconnect.”

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonalds, General Mills and Kellogg’s are doing backbends & jumping jacks to hustle a ‘balanced’ nutritional message to get America on the Move. Sept. 23, over 1000 YMCAs coast to coast join in the “STEPtember” (how clever) week long effort to ‘Activate America’…Lead sponsor? PepsiCo.

Soda and snack food companies are spending millions of dollars targeting schools via standards-based curriculum and teacher incentives, funding health foundations and hospitals, donating sports gear, freebie devices and even sponsoring branded playgrounds. What’s happening here? Is this a vending machine counter-tactic?

There are serious red flags on these sports-n-soda fitness plays yet no one seems to be grabbing a whistle.

Yo! Anyone remember the old days when ‘conflict of interest’ was a media watchword?

Um, evidently not.


When brands seep into exercise programs, it’s fuzzy.


Does it make sense for Burger King to have sponsored the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award? Can kids see the mismatched pairings of junk food and athletics? Why are soda and sports teamed so often, like Pepsi’s role with the YMCA?

Big soda: Giving back or grabbing more when it comes to kids’ mindshare?

You KNOW my answer. It’s quite obvious…Though not to children without health literacy/media literacy in how this all works! Meanwhile, health educators, medical associations, foundations and doctors themselves are eager to pair partnerships with backers that have the bucks to make a difference. They want to stem the tide of childhood obesity, but at what cost?

Lending medical credibility creates a “seal of approval” in itself.


Take it one step further and the confusion becomes even more absurd.

Paired foundations like this send even wackier mixed messages:

  • The American Dietetic Association and sugary snack giant General Mills
  • The American Heart Association and Kellogg’s

Guess it’s once again up to parents to pop open the truth and take the fizz out of the whole fandango.

But honestly…who has the time? We’re already scrambling to reverse a gazillion toxic behavioral cues. Might as well ‘shout out’ some cheesy marketing tactics. Here goes:

A parent’s primer for deconstructing ‘healthy’ soda-n-fitness messages:

Spot the spin: PepsiCo blitzed 15,000 middle schools with their “Balance First” standards-based curriculum using this same “seal of approval” healthy-looking logo. Kids are taught nutrition tips and how to “balance what you choose with how you move.” Fair enough.

Look closer: PepsiCo’s “healthy” green logo is misleading. It looks like a seal of approval, but it’s self-awarded. And it only represents products within Pepsi’s own line of snacks, soda, cereal, and such. Kids can ‘choose’ Baked Lays® chips, less sugary Cap’n Crunch® cereal, diet soda vs. regular and so on. Empty calories still mean chips are chips, so it’s really just ‘junk light’–a healthier choice from within their own line.

If this Pepsi program shows up in their classroom kids might want to ask:

  • Does a ‘healthy’ logo make a product healthy?
  • How does this exercise program promote certain products?
  • What nutritional criteria are used?
  • If facts are cited, who paid for the study?
  • If scientific statements are made, who is the resource?

As long as we’re on curriculum, let’s look at the NON-branded school fitness program through Coca-Cola. For starters, if it’s not branded, why do kids know it’s sponsored by Coke? Delve deeper into the subtext:

Think, “Why is it free?”

Coca-Cola’s giving kids personal Stepometers™ to track progress as they count 10,000 steps a day as part of its “Live It!” program, “Step with It!” curriculum, and “Fit It In” nutritional component, reaching well over 2 million 4th to 8th graders before year’s end. Over 6,000 schools are onboard so far.

Here’s what they don’t tell you: Burning off one Coke is about 3020 steps, and one supersized Big Mac Meal, 35,080. A perfect segue to ask kids:

What is NOT being said here?

  • Do big companies earn an “in” with educators by keeping their name off materials?
  • Why choose Coke red as the color of the freebie?
  • Has the school newsletter thanked Coke, or do teachers refer to it by name? If so, how has that added to Coke’s credibility?

Moving out of the classroom and onto the field, the junk food-fitness bond continues with concession contracts and spectator sports. Ask:

How are athletics funded at school?

P.E./health & sports cutbacks equate to a slam dunk for sponsorship, with gear, scoreboards, teams and scholarships often funded in exchange for advertising.

Inside facts on soda-n-sports to put on your radar as you hit the bleachers this season:

  • Sideline coolers emblazoned with sports drink brands are usually tied to marketing bonuses and product sales
  • Soda is often promoted over water due to higher profit margins and higher sales commissions
  • Uniforms and even the fields themselves are often funded by soda sponsors and beverage giants

Sadly, some schools fear lobbyist’s rhetoric about reimbursing playing fields and big ticket items if deals are rescinded due to tightening regulations. That’s a form of extortion for cash-strapped principals walking on eggshells who want to do what’s right for the kids and not lose their sports funding!

At home, there are all kids of exercise-n-junk food pairings to deconstruct media.

Ask kids if they believe all the “facts” on the web:

Go on a scavenger hunt and have THEM show YOU as they stumble on ‘bogus factology’ of soda-n-snack foods promoting fitness and fun. Tweens and teens are great about dissecting this stuff. They’ll trash talk the thing to smithereens once they see they’re being slammed with manipulative data. They may even get a science report out of it! Here are just a few:

PepsiCo’s “Get Active, Stay Active” Web site has distortions like:

Say what? Soda has no place positioned with ‘healthy balance and hydration.’

It’s a choice, sure…But ditch the spin…Pour yourself a cold one if you want. Just don’t confuse the issue by promoting it as ‘hydration.’

The devil is in the details, observe:

    • How do these suggestions promote products?
    • How many logos do you see promoting soda on the same page as fitness and exercise?
    • Can you “spot the dot?” Right below the green ‘Smart Choices Made Easy’ for example, there’s usually teeeeeeeeeeeny weeny type that says “From Pepsico.”

Help kids get media savvy with athletes and TV: Whether it’s Venus & Serena whacking tennis balls or NBA superstar Yao Ming zipping along on skateboards and bicycles to the catchy jingle, “It’s what I eat and what I do” it seems sports heroes and animated vegetables are flying all over the place to promote junk food.

Preteens may clown around mocking the concept of Ronald in warm-ups going from burgermeister to fitness freak, but positioning a ‘Happy Meal’ as a healthy meal gets REALLY confusing for tiny tots.

McDonalds’ GoActive site and sponsorship of global sports events like the Olympics and recent World Cup renewal through 2014 reinforces the food-fun-fitness ties with junk food and exercise.

Help kids connect the dots:

  • Do you think top athletes chug a lot of soda and chomp fries?
  • Are your sports heroes feasting on fast food at their training camps?
  • Why might McDonalds focus on shifting their image? (SuperSize me? Fast Food Nation?)

In the end, all you can do is know who’s sponsoring what, how it’s being funded, and why it impacts your kids.

Whether you see these corporate alliances as Wile E. Coyote setting a trap for Roadrunner, or as a fast way to get kids on the fitness track, you need to amp up your awareness to manage the media message.

By all means, join the fitness frenzy…Just keep a VERY healthy awareness of ‘healthy’ advertising!

(I wrote a shorter version of this article for Common Sense Media’s e-zine before summer. This one here is an update with juicy new links and big chunks previously cut.)



  1. You’re right on here as usual. The force-feeds of Channel One in schools now have commercials promoting this stuff too! I guess it is preparing our youth so they will vote in the future to allow our National Parks to be “Privatized” and run by corporations – ( oops – doubt it will come to a vote – why vote if you can ramrod it in on a Presidential signature ) so that as usual in the name of business… ( I think in the old days prior to the conflict of interest euphomism – they called it plain old GREED ) we can let the foxes guard the henhouse, the schoolhouse, the media access, etc etc – By ALL MEANS – Keep Blowing your whistles! – Thanks Mark J

  2. Commercialism is a nonpartisan problem, for coffers are being fed by ALL sides of the biz/corp. arena at the expense of kids’ health (body & soul) It’s a HUGE national issue, which is why we at Shaping Youth are taking such a “voice of the massive middle” stance…We’ll be reporting from the conference in Boston later in the month re: “In-School Marketing” & new consumerism targeting kids via ancillary promotional ties. (from Channel One to the proposed “Bus Radio” they’re trying to pump into school buses for kids to be targeted as a captive audience! Stay tuned…

  3. Nice site actually. Gone to my favourites. Thanks for creation.

  4. The danger of so many healthy new sodas is a health hazard for our children. Today some sodas are organic, but still loaded with sugars hidden by the ingredient list as organic evaported cane juice. The hazards are avirtually the same – diabetes, heart disease, cancer. Our schools need to set a standard for allowable sugars. Carbonation is never good for children. These new age sugared beverages will slip through the cracks if we are not careful.

  5. I not only find ‘healthy new soda’ an oxymoronic term, I’d lay bets that we’re going to see more and more of this marketing angle in the interest of ‘vitamin fortified’ silliness.

    Already, ‘Tava’ and ‘Coke Plus/7Up Plus’ & such are doing the ‘good for you’ bit, and my hunch is that Coca-Cola will pour serious bucks into their drink offerings to position them as ‘healthier for you’ in a big way. Why? Because they have more at stake…Pepsi has diversified their brand into other food products more, whereas Coca-Cola’s sodas of all kinds (along with energy drinks) account for a whopping 81% of their worldwide rev!!!

    Check it out!

    Also, this article sums it up well too, saying, ““The biggest thing in every industry right now is health and wellness,” says Lynn Dornblaser, director of Mintel Custom Solutions, a market research firm. “Even companies that never had that as a primary focus are now trying to adapt their product lines to fit what’s important today.”

    And to your point about “natural sodas”:

    “The ever-growing category of natural sodas has been promoting health claims for several years, and has lured drinkers away from more conventional carbonated beverages or turned the health conscious into first-time soda drinkers. Brands like Izze, Santa Cruz Organics and Blue Sky contain real fruit juice, organic sugar as well as, in some case, vitamins. “The success of natural sodas–and especially of fortified bottled waters–may have spurred the more traditional companies to move in a similar direction,” says Dornblaser.”

    Both of those came from this article:

    And of course, in our counter-marketing sessions on soda (click that category on the right sidebar to see some of our work with PepsiMax, orange soda, etc.) we use this hefty document from CSPI all about soda’s harm as “liquid candy” in the obesity epidemic:

    Thanks for the comment…pop in again?!

  6. Not just Coke and Pepsi. Why is Steaz sparkling green tea sold in schools when it has 35 grams of cane sugar in a bottle and carbonation? It is not right that simply by not calling a product soda it can be offered in schools. A generation of dentists and cardiologists thank you for job their security.

  7. p.s. Not sure why the links aren’t holding, see this one for an updated hot link list of the above:

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