Mailer Manipulation via Soda Taxes

If you’re in San Francisco you may have received some interesting fear-based advertising today. Your first indication that something is wrong may be the bait-and-switch. The front of the mailer says:


This may confuse you as the rest of the mailer is urging you to vote against beverage taxes.

But that’s not really the point. Special interests use the bait-and-switch all the time and it’s such an easy tactic to notice that I might even count this as a point for proponents of the tax. Nobody likes to be lied to and to make it so obvious is just… sad.

The fine print is where the best lies are though. For starters you should consider who paid for the advertising. The return address just say “Coalition for an Affordable City” but in slightly smaller text below, it turns out this mailer was paid for specifically by the American Beverage Association - a member of CFAAC. The ABA is of course championed by the usual suspects at Dr Pepper Snapple Group and Pepsi-Cola North America, etc. I’m sure you can come up with the rest of the members list off the top of your head.

That’s not a lie in itself, of course, but one should always know if the people paying for your advertisements are the same people who you pay for various goods and services.

the end notes

Let’s look at more small text now! There sure are a lot of end notes for a tiny mailer. And looking closely… it seems that half the notes are just links to articles about how expensive it is to live in SF. Fascinating, but not terribly relevant (I realize there are people in this city for whom an increase in beverage price is a big deal, my issue is that they present this as half their argument and then distribute their fliers in Noe Valley where it is most definitely not a big deal). There’s just as much fear-based marketing in the little text at the bottom of the page as there is in the BIG BOLD TEXT at the top.

To be fair, the last three end notes are actually about soda taxes.

The first, a New York Times “article” - I say this because it’s a whopping 430 words long, a significant portion of which is quoting or summarizing another article - which says “Yes, this will raise some extra tax money” and also “Here’s a scholarly article on soda taxes”. The article is from 2009 and I’m completely sure that in the last five years there has been no interest or notable legislation for soda taxes in New York state that would compel the NYT to write about the subject in any form (in five minutes, nope, nope, nope).

Back to the linked article: that article says… Actually, let’s hold out on that for just a moment…

…Because the next end note is said quoted article from the previous note. The article is a summary of other studies of obesity rates and prices and does, in fact, say what the mailer wants it to say:

…small taxes or subsidies were not likely to produce significant changes in BMI or obesity prevalence…

And in practically the same breath this:

Even though they would only have a small impact on individual behavior, such interventions could have a large impact at the population level when applied broadly.

And this:

As proxies by the prices of energy-dense fast foods and sugar, adolescents’ and adults’ weight was found to be price sensitive.

The article goes on to state that soda is in a very similar state to cigarettes before the grand tax increases of the last 30 years which has been credited with significant declines in smoking. Mostly it just says “here are some studies, they’re not really great overall but here are some conclusions we can make. And here are a bunch of ways we could make the studies better in the future.”

The last end note is part of the California Constitution that states, in somewhat cryptic legalese:

Neither the State of California nor any of its political subdivisions shall levy or collect a sales or use tax on the sale of, or the storage, use or other consumption in this State of food products for human consumption except as provided by statute as of the effective date of this section.

And which the mailer describes as “added by California voters in 1992 to prevent snack taxes”. Note the language that California uses because it cares specifically about snacks and soda. Also are drinks food? But we have an alcohol tax? As always, the laws are so clear in California.

I almost forgot to mention the implication that “we legislated against this in 1992 so let’s never reconsider our position ever again” because it’s not like California ever outlawed anything with a proposition that may have been wrong.

final snark

The point is not that you should vote for or against a soda tax. The point is that you should take a moment and look at the mailer that you agree or disagree with and find out how the sponsors are manipulating you (and they are). Then you may discard it, or call it justified and move on with your life.

Tue, Mar 4, 2014