In January 2020, just a month before the world stopped, Pepsi changed its tagline to “That’s What I Like.” Over the ensuing year, the world changed, and Pepsi’s marketing—especially around its supposed commitments to racial justice and voting rights—has become harder to palette for a growing public. That’s why today, in time for PepsiCo’s annual meeting, we explore what we’d really like from the largest U.S. food and beverage corporation.
Spoiler alert: we want Pepsi to commit to getting its money out of politics for good, beginning with the legislators, lobbyists, and trade groups behind Jim Crow 2.0.
In the aftermath of the Capitol white supremacist insurrection, PepsiCo, like many other corporations, suspended its political giving temporarily. Now, in the wake of Georgia passing sweeping voting restrictions—and in the face of more than 350 different voting laws under consideration in dozens of states that would disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color—Pepsi has pledged to sign on to a joint business statement opposing “discriminatory legislation on voting.”
But this is just another example of the junk food giant trying to have its soda and drink it, too.
PepsiCo Board Member and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker noted that, “[i]t is regrettable that the sense of urgency came after the legislation was passed and signed into law,” for Corporate America, Pepsi not excluded. And that lack of urgency persists.
Pepsi can make all the statements it wants, but until it forever defunds and disavows the individuals and institutions behind the GOP’s baseless national push to suppress the vote, its statements will ring hollow. For one, Pepsi remains a dues paying member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (it gave more than $500,000 to in 2020). This most powerful of national trade groups—having spent $17.5 million lobbying in 2021 already—is a leading opponent of a law to expand voting rights nationally, the For the People Act. The Chamber is afraid the law will “silence Americans” who “participate in the political process through the collective action of an association or corporation.” In other words, the Chamber is intent on ensuring corporate executives and their lobbyists continue to enjoy unrivaled influence over and access to the people’s government.
This shouldn’t be a difficult calculus for PepsiCo. As Mellody Hobson, the chairwoman of Starbucks, noted, “[p]olitical unrest is bad for business.” If PepsiCo is serious about creating a safe and stable country—and with it a viable marketplace for the corporation to rely on—the corporation should put its money where its mouth is (e.g. somewhere other than in politics).
Speaking of getting corporate money out of politics: it is the bigger underlying problem. Bigger even than corporations bankrolling Jim Crow 2.0. Corporations have, in ways that further and maintain white supremacy, been manipulating democracy since their beginnings. A recent Public Citizen report found that corporations spent $22 million in the 2020 election cycle on contributions to politicians who have supported racist voter restrictions. And Feed the Truth’s recent analysis of political spending (Draining the Big Food Swamp) found that PepsiCo spent $3.7 million on lobbying in 2020 along with millions more on contributions to trade groups.
Yes, we can celebrate that a subset of Corporate America is suddenly taking a stand regarding this one particular assault on U.S. democracy. But beyond the vapidness of these stands, what about the many other injustices also being perpetuated thanks to Pepsi and Big Business’s political giving more broadly—whether keeping America’s workers underpaid, failing to effectively address climate change, or preventing local governments from recouping Big Soda’s externalized costs to human health through means like soda taxes?
And here’s “the real thing” (couldn’t miss a moment to weave in another soda tagline!): while PepsiCo might be saying the right thing at this moment, its business model is premised on selling sugary, unhealthy, and ultra-processed foods to people around the world. That’s why in California, PepsiCo and other beverage corporations have continued to fight soda taxes. PepsiCo, according to research from Kaiser Health News, has “given to nearly every state officeholder” in California, protecting a bill Big Soda helped enact in 2018 that will prevent localities from passing any soda taxes until 2031!
Of course, you could argue that it’s plainly in PepsiCo’s self interest to stave off public health laws that could increase their costs and depress their sales. But that’d be taking a very short-term view; a view that corporations must appease shareholders on the nearest time horizons humanly possible at whatever long-term cost. Even if corporate executives and boards aren’t yet awaking to the reality that such an approach spells doom not just for planetary well-being but for business viability, shareholders are. At PepsiCo’s annual meeting the corporation will face calls from its own investors to study the role its sugar-saturated products are playing in driving an epidemic of diet-related disease that disproportionately impacts communities of color . Shareholders both care about the social impacts of their investment and get that new laws and litigation are coming (as they did for Big Tobacco) for food corporations that premise profit on privatizing profits and socializing costs.
Ultimately, as PepsiCo notes in its 2020 annual report, “[o]ur beverage, food and snack products compete primarily on the basis of brand recognition and loyalty, taste, price…and the ability to anticipate and effectively respond to consumer preferences and trends, including increased consumer focus on health and wellness.” There were a dozen other factors included in that list as well, but note that brand recognition and loyalty are listed first. Sparkly sugar water and snacks are easily replaced by another brand. Thus, acting well is a requirement for a corporation like Pepsi. “What Pepsi Likes” is continuing to make lots of profit—$10.5 billion in 2020 to be specific. So if we want PepsiCo to do better, we have to ensure it understands that damaging health—of the republic, of the public, and of the environment—is not what we like.