Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Thirst Game

Are you ready? It's time to play our game.

So, you're thirsty. You get something to drink. Simple. It's a basic human need, and no one should come between you and your choice of beverage, right?

If only that were true.

Beverage companies spend millions of dollars influencing what you will choose when you want to quench that thirst. They have focus groups, advertising professionals, marketing campaigns, street teams, and food scientists tweaking flavors. All their efforts are aimed at you and how you spend your money.

In many ways, the game is rigged before you even start.

The amount of money that groups like the Horizon Foundation are able to spend is a drop in the bucket. They have to work twice as hard to even get your attention. In my opinion, the HoCo Unsweetend campaign has been doing a great job going directly to thirsty people and showing them that there are better choices.

But when it comes to playing our game, the odds are against them.

So, let's think on this. When you're playing the game, you're thirsty and you want a drink. Big Soda is playing the game, too. They want your money. And groups like the Horizon Foundation and the County are playing, too. What do they want?

They're responding to a public health crisis. (One which is costing all of us a good bit of money in health care costs, by the way.) They want to reduce negative impact on the community. So, they want to lessen consumption of sugary drinks and sodas. How? Education, shaping behaviors, and, in the case of health and wellness policies, choosing to exclude them from items offered for sale at County facilities and events.

Which leads us to the Fourth of July. And this is where the game gets tricky. Remember, we have three players here: you, Big Soda, and Public Health. Only now, when you get to an event like fireworks at the Lakefront, the game is suddenly not about public health. It's about public relations.

You can probably tell from what I have written so far that I am rooting for the Public Health folks. And this is what makes this event complicated for me. I feel as though it made the case for healthier drinks looks bad. Getting the public to choose healthier drinks at summer events would be a win. Making so many different groups of people mad is not, especially folks who are inclined to be on your side for the most part.

As I said, it's a difficult game to win.

So here is my armchair analysis, for what it's worth. When folks at the county were deciding to do this, what was the conversation around the table? Did anyone play Devil's Advocate? Did they prepare an adequate response to naysayers? Were they ready to make this decision look like a win for the community every step of the way?

I agree with Ian Kennedy, of the Horizon Foundation, that being chosen as a vendor for County events is a privilege, and not a right. But seems to me that it was disgruntled vendors carping to the press that gave this story "legs". How much time was spent recruiting vendors that would be on board with offering a variety of healthy drinks? If the vendors had been willing partners, this could have been more of a win for Better Beverages.

More of a win. Not an outright win, but a move forward along the game board. Re-shaping human behavior against the rolling tide of Big Soda (not to mention attitudes of those who equate public health with "nanny state") can't be won in one roll of the dice. But I can't help feeling that this was a wrong choice for the right reasons.

People can pass judgement all they want. Actions have consequences. Public actions have public consequences. And the County was willing to put itself out there on this. Why? Because they have a long-term goal of improving the health of citizens. Of reducing costs spent on treating diseases brought on by high consumption of sodas and sugary drinks.

You think it's as simple as "no one comes between me and my thirst"?

Think again. And thanks for playing our game.







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