Communications strategies behind Philly’s soda tax debate

Communications strategies behind Philly’s soda tax debate

Philadelphia’s leaders recently passed a tax on soda, beating the deep-pocketed beverage industry where other administrations have failed, and potentially creating a national model for other cities trying to curb obesity.

Wait, is that actually what happened?

You may have heard a different story: Philadelphia’s politicians pushed through a tax on people’s groceries by fooling stakeholders, creating a dangerous precedent that endangers small businesses.

Whatever narrative you believe, this is a textbook case study on the art of defining and framing an argument. Depending on who’s behind the messaging, you’ll find very different descriptions of the same issue. It’s a fundamental part of modern rhetoric, and it’s a critical element of effective communication.

Most people are well aware of this practice in the political context. The liberal versus conservative debate over whether we should work together to form a fair and just society, or give people the freedom to live their lives as they see fit, is ingrained in our nation’s DNA. But it’s prevalent in almost any argument. Is Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors “weak,” or evidence of “ambition, guts, and a sense of purpose“?

This type of framing can be maddening to some people. Looked at another way, it’s simply leveraging the tools of language, which is itself malleable, ever-evolving and up to interpretation. Should we use words the way we want them to work in theory, as precise and objective, or the way they actually work in the human mind, which is messy and subjective?

Getting a Grip

Jay Heinrichs, a journalist and publishing executive turned speaker on rhetoric and marketing, described this approach beautifully in his book “Thank You For Arguing.” He looks at framing arguments like arm wrestling, in which the competitors try to get a better grip on the situation. Choosing words and phrases that favor your argument is like changing your hand and arm position to give yourself more leverage.

His prescription for getting a grip in this rhetorical sense is to start with common ground. Define your audience, and identify what they actually care about. Find the broadest context that will appeal to the values of the largest audience so you can craft a message with broad acceptance.

In many ways, that’s the consensus of what made Philadelphia’s soda tax campaign successful. Whereas many other cities talked about taxing sweetened drinks as a way to help people make smart health decisions, Major Jim Kenney and the organizations aligned with him framed the issue as an equitable way to change the “narrative of poverty” in Philadelphia, using the tax revenue to pay for an education system in a constant state of crisis.

Philadelphia may appear to be a unique situation, but there is evidence of this framing approach proving effective in the past. In May, Philly Voice did a deep-dive on the subject, looking at the history of similar efforts across the country, and found precedents in Arkansas and Ohio.

“Soda companies use three kinds of frames: personal responsibility, hurting the poor, and nanny state,” Marion Nestle, author of the 2015 book ‘Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning),’ told the website. “These frames resonate with voters caught by today’s economic hurdles. Tax campaigns can counter these frames when the collected funds are used to pay for needed social services.”

Indeed, this redefinition of the argument struck many onlookers as a refreshing departure from the rhetoric dozens of other cities used unsuccessfully.

“Instead of the usual eat-your-vegetables pitch of public health reformers, he is offering Philadelphians something delicious: a giant pot of money to fund popular city projects,” wrote Margot Sanger-Katz in The New York Times column The Upshot, after Kenney introduced the tax in his budget proposal.

Later, Kenney spelled out this approach even more explicitly, in the form of advice for other cities hoping to follow a similar model.

“Tie your efforts to tangible initiatives that people care about,” he said in a press conference. “When it comes up, acknowledge that it is a good thing to drink less sugar-sweetened beverages, but tie it to things that people care about.”

That’s why the coalition organized in support of the cause wasn’t called “Skinny Philly” or “Philadelphians Against Fat” – it was called “Philadelphians for a Fair Future.” Who doesn’t want a fair future?

Don’t Accept the Definition

Of course, the campaign didn’t aim to tax apples and bananas, but sugar-sweetened drinks, which have already been vilified. The fact that it was officially called the Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Tax, and more commonly referred to as the soda tax, is a form of defining the argument itself, because “sugar” and “soda” have negative connotations.

In reality, the 1.5 cents-per-ounce tax (i.e. 18 cents per standard 12 ounce can) doesn’t just affect soda, but it also affects drinks that most people would probably consider on the healthier side of the spectrum, like Gatorade, Vitamin Water, Honest Tea and V8 Splash. Imagine if it were called the “organic tea tax” or “carrot and orange drink tax.”

But, defining the argument isn’t strictly an offensive tactic. Just because someone else has defined the conversation, doesn’t mean it can’t be redefined. There’s no reason everyone has to accept the original definition, just as it’s only appropriate in sports to respond to your opponent’s offensive move with a defensive countermove.

That’s exactly why opponents of the measure defined it as a “grocery tax,” forming their own entity called “Philadelphians Against the Grocery Tax.” Who doesn’t like groceries?

“We’re taking a stand because Philadelphians can’t afford to pay even more at the grocery store,” reads the group’s site, which was funded by the American Beverage Association, and lists more than 1,000 coalition partners.

In total, the ABA spent about $5 million on advertising in Philadelphia against the grocery tax, while Philadelphians for a Fair Future spent about $2 million promoting the soda tax. In the latter case, most of the pro-tax funding came from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who famously tried to ban supersized sodas while mayor of New York City, and faced an onslaught of about $13 million in advertising that said the ban “limited New Yorkers’ freedom of choice.

Those advertising figures, it should be noted, make it clear that having the right argument isn’t a panacea. Philadelphia’s leaders may have chosen a winning frame, but they still needed an army of ads and advocates to get the message out there. A great argument can get you a solid grip, but if you have puny arms, you’re still at a major disadvantage.

Find Your Frame

As these lessons are applied more generally, it’s an art and a science deciding which arguments present the best frame. We see companies struggle with this issue all the time, in which they have multiple potential messages to utilize. They often resort to saying everything at once, which only winds up diluting the impact of each individual argument.

Instead, the key is working to understand your audience, analyzing how to align their values with your goals, and framing the discussion in a compelling, consistent, disciplined way.

Philadelphia’s City Council ultimately approved the tax, but opponents vow to challenge it in court. Meanwhile, many other cities are looking to learn from the communications lessons here in Philadelphia.

“Philly represents the clearest sign yet that revenue rather than health may become the new argument for sugary-beverage tax proposals,” Duane Stanford, editor-in-chief of Beverage Digest, told Bloomberg magazine.

“May become” is the key phrase there, because there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In the right context, it very well may be that a health-centric frame works best, if that’s a value that’s truly important to the audience in question. And while wordsmithing works, facts do matter, so the results of this new tax will be closely watched, analyzed, defined and redefined.

What’s obvious, though, is that this is a debate that Americans will be wrestling over for years to come. You better grab your popcorn and soda, and watch the war of words.

This article is part of our Inside Story series, an occasional, in-depth look at the hidden marketing insights behind historical and current events. Read more in this series.

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