Food Marketing

Michael Siegel

Professor, Community Health Sciences
Q&A with Michael Siegel


Professor, Community Health Sciences, Boston University School of Public Health

Dr. Siegel is a physician who completed his residency in Preventive Medicine at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and trained in epidemiology for two years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta before coming to Boston. He primarily teaches in the areas of mass communication, marketing, and public health advocacy. He is co-author of a book, entitled “Marketing Public Health: Strategies to Promote Social Change,” that grew out of his teaching experience. He has been active in promoting smoke-free bar and restaurant policies throughout the country and has served as an expert witness in several major tobacco litigation cases.

What role does corporate marketing have in the obesity epidemic?

Marketing is divided into several areas. There’s personal selling, advertising, public relations, and promotion. One of the areas that’s included in public relations is sponsorship, so one of the ways in which corporations improve their PR is by giving lots of money to community organizations. And that essentially buys their friendship. I think it’s important that people understand that this is a marketing function, even though these companies are doing philanthropy by giving money to good causes. For example, there are a large number of medical and health organizations that accept money from Coca Cola and Pepsi, and some of these organizations are directly involved in the fight against obesity. So it’s a real paradox that these health groups are taking money from the two main corporations whose job is to sell as much soda as they can. This can potentially weaken their support of policies designed to limit the spread of obesity.

How does the influence of corporate money affect the mission of health organizations?

Their mission is absolutely compromised, because they’re basically working to promote soda by serving as a pawn in the marketing games of these big soft drink companies. These companies have opposed and lobbied against every single piece of legislation at the state and national level that would fight obesity, even simple things like requiring warning labels or improving school nutrition. So these public health groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, or the American Dietetic Association, have removed themselves from the debate. We saw the same thing with tobacco, the way that health groups that took tobacco money were silenced. Where otherwise they might have been vigorous supporters of tobacco control policies, now they were reluctant to speak out. The American Dietetic Association is a great example, they will not come out in support of any major initiatives that will harm the profits of Coca Cola or Pepsi. So they’ve been a very weak voice in the obesity movement, so weak I would not even consider them a part of the public health community. Many of these health groups have been bought off.

How can we work against this pervasive corporate influence?

I think that change is going to have to come from inside. Physicians and dieticians themselves, from inside these organizations, are going to have to stand up and say that they are not comfortable serving in this role. We also have to educate the public health community about the role that corporate sponsorship plays. The health organizations don’t exist on their own, they exist because of the members who are public health professionals. So if we educate the community, the members of the organizations will start to put pressure on the leadership. This is exactly the approach that we took with tobacco and it worked. Today there are very few public health groups that are willing to take tobacco money. Public health practitioners have a lot of power to make change. It’s a twofold process- education then action. The framework that we tend to use when we look at obesity is individual choice- the person needs to make better decisions. We’re not as aware that corporations and the media are playing a role. People are influenced by many factors, and the marketing, sponsorship, and public relations activities of soda companies are one of those factors. We have to start viewing obesity as a societal problem that has social factors.