And so it should be.
The economist’s argument in favour would be that sugary drinks, like many consumer goods, have negative externalities and ought to be taxed accordingly. That way we can keep a degree of choice, whilst reducing demand and covering the cost of the consequences.
But the real issue is whether we believe advertising has the power change the world – for better or worse. It’s essentially an argument between those who believe that advertising can stimulate demand that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and those who believe people are purely rational agents and that their choices are ‘free’, by moral necessity. The latter view is self-serving and empirically wrong.
People didn’t want heavily sugared, fizzy water before it was advertised to them at huge scale and expense. Of course much of that advertising has been brilliant, creative and hugely effective. Yet many of us in the industry seem to want to disavow that power, and duck the subsequent responsibility. That’s bad for our credibility, and our moral compass. We of all people should respect the power of words and images to change behaviour and shape consciousness.
So instead of trying to turn back the tide, why not embrace the opportunity to do something better? Part of the answer lies in bringing less harmful products to market – and the further upstream creative agencies can get involved, the better we can help do so in a way that’s culturally relevant.
The manufacturers also have to invest heavily in these properties. A ‘choice’ strategy is a cop-out; you can’t just show your existing range and pretend that the stupendous equity built into your unhealthiest product won’t win out. The sugar tax is a strong signal that it’s not enough to cover off different segments of the market with various takes on ‘diet’, ‘light’ and reduced sugar sub-brands, whilst the real damage is being done by your main product.
In short, make the good thing the main thing. Not a defensive afterthought or worthy gesture. As an industry, we should be looking to reimagine what soft drinks – and the branded giants that define the category – could mean. We need to ask ourselves how fundamental sugar is to the identity of these brands and try to imagine how things might be different. For manufacturers and brand managers, that means taking bigger risks with the both the recipes and equity of long-established brands that haven’t changed in far too long.
I can’t see a world where there is no demand for sugary drinks. But I can imagine a future where advertising has made a healthier alternative the norm. Of course, there will be people who say that less sugary products can never be as desirable. But as an industry we live or die by our ability to create desire. If we no longer feel up to that challenge, then we’re destined for irrelevance.