February 26, 2013

Controversial marketing: The hidden empty calories in soft drink vendings machines at high schools

Last month, I visited a high school Open House with my almost 12 year old daughter. One of the staff members proudly told parents that the canteen only serves healthy foods. Good news. However, to my surprise I bumped into a soft drink vending machine in the hall way selling various sugary drinks (see picture).

Last week, a documentary about the powerful sugar and soft drinks lobby in the Netherlands opened my eyes (Zembla: De Zoete Verleiding). At 37 minutes into the documentary, a Dutch school principal states that the school earns about €19.000 each year thanks to a so-called 'pouring contract'. The school gives exclusive permission to sell soft drinks in vending machines in hallway or canteen ('pouring rights'). Although most revenues go to the soft drink company, for schools these contracts are very lucrative. It is a substantial source of revenue to pay for all kinds of extra school activities such as music and sports.

Since the 1990s, targeting schools has been an important strategic direction of soft drink companies. School children are a highly relevant group to continuously confront with brand logos and advertising. It is a great opportunity to create a new generation of loyal consumers. However, it is a questionable marketing practice. Perhaps schools underestimate the negative consequences of consuming soft drinks at a regular basis. If that is the case, they should wake up. A recent study among 641 Dutch school children showed that children given sugar-free drinks gained less weight than those given regular drinks with sugars. This study adds to the growing evidence that sugary soft drinks directly contribute to obesity among children. As such, soft drinks are the prototype of junk food.

Reversing the obesity problem requires immediate action. I am in favour of using psychological insights to nudge consumers towards healthier food choices. Subtly pushing children towards healthier choices, for example by making fruits and salad more accessible, is a promising way to go. Increasingly, vending machines include healthier options, such as water. However, as a consumer scientist and a mother, I wonder whether a nudge is strong enough. Soft drinks are a huge temptation compared to water. Water is less cool and tasty. Seeing 'everyone drinking it' may influence my daughter to leave her common sense behind. Moreover, that athlete at the display looks real good. As teenagers are in the process of learning to control themselves, they need strong support at home, but also at school. Add this to the substantial financial benefits for both the soft drink industry and schools and I believe that we strongly need to consider banning soft drinks in school vending machines.

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