Does the American Heartland Need More Soda? PepsiCo Thinks So

Middle America is heavier than the rest of the country. Is targeting them with sugary sodas ethical?

Obesity rates are higher in the American heartland, but PepsiCo is planning to market its sodas there anyway. (Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Brand strategist Paul Jankowski says the American Heartland has spread. He’s not talking about jean sizes and obesity rates—although maybe he should be.

In a recent interview with AdWeek, Jankowski says there’s a “new” Heartland, one that still includes the Midwest, but now spans parts of the Southwest and Southeast. And to reach this overlooked and underserved group, Jankowski says brands need to “Speak American.”

Which is why, according to a press release sent to us by DiGennaro Communications, he was hired to build the new Heartland strategies for PepsiCo brands Lipton and Mountain Dew. That’s right, despite swaths of states in the middle of the country surpassing 30 percent obesity rates (just take a peek at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s obesity map here), the world’s No. 2 soda maker, PepsiCo, decided to set its sights on America’s heartland.

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To tug on those all-American heartstrings, they’ve secured country pop group Lady Antebellum for Lipton and country music singer Jason Aldean to promote Mountain Dew products. “In addition, Access Brand Strategies [where Jankowski is the chief strategist] worked hand-in-hand with PepsiCo’s advertising, PR and digital agencies to activate strategies to ensure that all facets of the integrated campaign were in step with Heartland consumers,” says the release.

That means those of you in the flyover states are now being precisely targeted.

Jankowski was not available to comment on our story, and an email into PepsiCo’s media department went unanswered.

Of course this is purely about market share, but in time where soda makers are being routinely blamed for much of our nation’s expanding seat-size, the sophisticated targeting of regions where obesity rates have already reached alarming rates is notable. That can't be good news for those in frontline states like Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas or Michigan.

“Advertising works, otherwise companies wouldn’t bother,” nutrition expert Marion Nestle tells TakePart in an email interview. “Beverage companies are already specifically targeting low-income blacks and Hispanics with high rates of obesity. That works. So why not try the heartland where rates of obesity are also high?”

Demographic targeting isn't the only tool soda makers are welding lately. According to the Associated Press, they’re also scrambling to develop no-calorie sodas that don’t have a metallic aftertaste.

These new efforts by soda makers come on the heels of widespread public pressure to address the problem.

“In New York City, a ban on the sale of sugary drinks bigger than 16 ounces in restaurants, theaters and stadiums could take effect as early as March. The mayor of Cambridge, Mass., proposed a similar ban last month. And in Richmond, Calif., voters will decide in November whether to pass the nation’s first penny-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks such as fruit juices and teas,” writes Candice Choi for the AP.

Does a change in market strategy signify trouble ahead? Maybe, but for now, deep corporate pockets and sophisticated marketing teams send the message that soda makers aren’t giving up any time soon.

Are you surprised soda companies are targeting specific geographic areas?

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