Tobacco companies used their advertising skills to help market sugary drinks to kids – even inventing the single-serving juice box, according to a new study that looked at previously sealed documents.
The research, gathered by experts on the tobacco industry at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), tracks how two tobacco titans, RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris, adapted and sold their marketing strategies – including bright colors, flavors, and memorable brand characters – to promote popular drinks such as Kool-Aid and Capri Sun to children. Tobacco companies were forced to disclose the documents after lawsuits in the 1990s.
“Executives in the two largest US-based tobacco companies had developed colors and flavors as additives for cigarettes and used them to build major children’s beverage product lines,” said Laura Schmidt, a senior author of the study and member of the UCSF Philip R Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, in a news release. “Even after the tobacco companies sold these brands to food and beverage corporations, many of the product lines and marketing techniques designed to attract kids are still in use today.”
The study traces how tobacco companies shifted focus as tobacco came under increasing regulatory scrutiny in the ’60s and ’70s, directing their marketing efforts instead to beverages that would eventually become staples among American kids. RJ Reynolds, for example, purchased Hawaiian Punch in 1963, and developed the “Punchy” mascot to promote what was originally an adult cocktail mixer via toys, schoolbooks, comics and TV commercials. In 1983, the company offered the country’s first juice box, touting a “handy little carton that comes with its very own straw”.
Philip Morris, the owner of Marlboro cigarettes, acquired Kool-Aid in 1985. The company then “flipped its marketing audience from families to children”, according to the researchers, by creating the Kool-Aid Man. The mascot became a ubiquitous figure for many millennials, through commercials and brand partnerships with Barbie and Hot Wheels. The study reveals that Philip Morris also developed a children’s Kool-Aid loyalty program described as “our version of the Marlboro Country Store”, a cigarette incentives program.
“The Wacky Wild Kool-Aid style campaign had tremendous reach and impact,” said Kim Nguyen, one of the study’s lead authors, in the news release, noting that “the Kool-Aid kid program was modeled after a tobacco marketing strategy designed to build allegiance with smokers”.
The researchers say the study demonstrates why “well-enforced government regulations” on marketing sugary drinks to children should replace current industry-led standards.
“The industry claims that these tobacco-inspired marketing strategies are not actually targeting children and should be excluded from these industry-led agreements,” said Schmidt. “But the evidence cited in our research shows that these product lines and marketing techniques were specifically designed for and tested on children.”