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Pepsi’s pulled protest ad is part of a long history of big soda exploiting black and Latino youth

Soda companies’ marketing in these communities has exacerbated racial health disparities.

Kendall Jenner with Pepsi Pepsi

A new Pepsi ad that sparked public outrage is a sign of just how far soda companies are willing to go to appeal to black and Latino youth.

The ad features a staged protest filled with beautiful, smiling young people (many of them people of color) and the model Kendall Jenner of the Kardashian clan.

Near the end of the almost three-minute video, Jenner offers a Pepsi to a handsome young cop, and all is sunny and well in the world.

People are furious over the ad’s tone-deafness, and the suggestion that a white model and a Pepsi might solve complex problems in the world like police brutality and racial inequality. In response to the furor, Pepsi has pulled the ad and issued a statement of apology.

While it’s a new low for soda-company marketing to multicultural youth, it’s also the beverage industry’s latest troubling campaign to sell this group sugary drinks that can harm their health.

The public health community has long argued that big soda’s targeting of African Americans and Latinos is exacerbating health problems in those communities. We now have a big pile of evidence that sugary drink consumption is linked to health problems, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay. Low-income African Americans and Hispanics tend to consume higher levels of sugary drinks compared with white Americans. They are also much more likely to be obese and die from diabetes compared with their white counterparts.

To demonstrate how soda companies go after minority youth, the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently compiled the research. They found African-American teens saw four times as many Sprite ads and three times as many Coca-Cola ads as their white counterparts in 2013. Almost 17 percent of soda ads were targeted to Spanish-language TV, compared with 8.6 percent for packaged foods generally. Low-income African-American and Latino neighborhoods also seemed to be particular targets for outdoor soda ads compared with lower-income white and higher-income neighborhoods.

Pepsi has been a particularly big spender in trying to push its products on minority communities, CSPI said: “PepsiCo spent $33.6 million on all Hispanic-targeted media in 2013 and has created products such as Pepsi Limón, aimed at appealing to Hispanic consumers.” That year, Pepsi was the soda company that spent the most on marketing sugary drinks, followed by Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.

Soda companies spend billions on marketing because it works. As Marion Nestle, the New York University food policy professor who wrote the book Soda Politics, told me, savvy marketing practices were a key part of a winning formula that helped soda companies achieved global domination. “All soda is is tap water, with a secret formula that isn't so secret — and an enormous amount of marketing behind it...”

This marketing has exacerbated racial health disparities. It’s helped contribute to the glaring health and mortality gaps between black and white Americans. Those inequalities are worth pausing over — in real life, not in a soda ad.