A public hearing on New York City's proposed ban on big sugary drinks is a week away, and soft-drink makers and sellers have deployed a PR and advertising assault to rally opposition.
They have much at stake. There's the potential revenue drop if the 16-ounce cap on bottled drinks and fountain beverages sold at restaurants, movie theaters, sports venues and street carts is enacted. There's also the concern that other cities might follow suit.
The business ramifications of a ban on supersize soft drinks "would be pretty significant," says Joe Pawlak, vice president at food industry research firm Technomic. "Everyone is watching this as a benchmark law."
Fountain drinks in particular — which often get marked up 10 to 15 times the cost — are "big moneymakers," he says. "They're one of the most profitable items you'll see."
The proposed ban affects sweetened drinks, such as carbonated beverages and iced teas, that have more than 25 calories per eight ounces. It comes as volume sales of carbonated beverages decline. Those sales have been dropping for seven years as consumers grab more water and non-carbonated beverages such as sports drinks, according to trade publication Beverage Digest. In 2011, U.S. volume sales of Coke dropped 1%, and Pepsi-Cola fell nearly 5%.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the plan in May, saying he wanted to combat obesity.
The Board of Health in New York will vote on the proposal in September. If approved, it could take effect as early as March 2013.
Hundreds of soft-drink makers and sellers, trade groups and others have formed New Yorkers for Beverage Choices to fight the plan.
Members of the coalition include large companies and organizations, such as Coca-Cola and the National Association of Theatre Owners, as well as many mom-and-pop food sellers. Funding comes from the American Beverage Association, which also spearheaded the campaign.
The group is aggressively marketing its message through means such as:
•Social media. Recent tweets tweaked Bloomberg for helping to promote a July 4 hot-dog-eating contest where participants wolfed down dozens of frankfurters; the mayor presided over the contestant weigh-in. Facebook posts include anti-ban messages and conversation-starting questions such as "What do you call it, pop or soda?"
•Radio ads. One-minute radio ads promote the freedom to cheer for the Yankees or Mets, to live in any borough — and to buy supersize drinks. "This is New York City. No one tells us what neighborhood to live in or what team to root for," the ad says. "So are we going to let our mayor tell us what size beverage to buy?"
•Airplane banners. "No drinks for u! New Yorkers for Beverage Choices" reads a banner that's been flying over the Coney Island and Rockaway Beach areas.
•Petitions. People wearing shirts that say "I picked out my beverage all by myself" are asking New Yorkers to sign a petition against the ban. So far, nearly 66,000 people have signed.
•Movie marquee ads. "Say no to the NYC ban" reads one of the movie-theater marquee signs in the city — not an official part of the coalition's messaging but an "in-kind donation," says coalition spokesman Eliot Hoff.
Soft-drink manufacturers should be careful in how aggressively they fight the ban, says Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark, a consultancy that advises senior management in the food and beverage industries.
Advertising slogans equate their products with "pleasure and happiness," so a "guns blazing" approach runs the risk that they'll appear hostile or defensive, he says.
"There's a gentle way to work this," he says.
For its part, New York City government has been vocal in getting its message out. Subway ads show overflowing beverage containers with the headline, "Are you pouring on the pounds?"
Press releases from the mayor's office list statements of support from other mayors, CEOs of health-oriented companies, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and filmmaker Spike Lee.
Bloomberg talks about the ban's benefits at press events, related to the proposal or not, and on national TV programs, often bringing up obesity concerns and stressing that he's not revoking consumer rights.
"We're not banning you from getting the stuff. It's just if you want 32 ounces, the restaurant has to serve it in two glasses," he said on the Today show. "That's not exactly taking away your freedoms. It's not something that the Founding Fathers fought for."