September 17, 2020
A new report by the NCD Alliance and the SPECTRUM Research Consortium has exposed how Big Alcohol along with other unhealthy industries turns COVID-19 into the world’s largest marketing campaign. The report outlines four main strategies used by these industries and contains more than 360 examples of alcohol industry activities exploit the public health crisis to pursue profit maximization.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) such as obesity, heart disease, lung disease, liver disease and cancer were identified as risk factors for contracting the virus and experiencing more severe COVID-19 progression. But even before the pandemic NCDs deserved urgent attention, as the world’s biggest killer, causing about 41 million deaths per year. The pandemic further exacerbated the existing health burden due to NCDs.
Movendi International reported how Big Alcohol is using the pandemic for their benefit from early on when COVID-19 hit societies. Now the NCD Alliance and the SPECTRUM Research Consortium have released a report called “Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm: Unhealthy commodity industries and COVID-19“ which analyses how Big Alcohol and other unhealthy industries exploit the pandemic for their marketing and as political leverage.
Alcohol use along with tobacco use, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise and air pollution are the major risk factors for NCDs. Therefore, the strategies and efforts of the producers of these health harmful products in exploiting the pandemic to further their marketing, sell more products and protect their profits are unethical. It shows that even during a public health crisis, profit maximization is what matters to these Big Corporations, even at the cost of human lives.
Four main corporate strategies
The report outlines four main strategies used by these industries:
- Pandemic-tailored marketing campaigns and stunts,
- Corporate social responsibility programmes,
- Fostering partnerships with governments, international agencies and NGOs, and
- Shaping policy environments.
The report highlights the following key findings:
- The consistency with which corporate actions have been selected to advance longstanding strategic priorities. Multiple initiatives publicly presented as contributions to national or international efforts to combat the pandemic and support communities were actually designed to promote brands, products and corporations whose economic interests frequently conflict with public health goals.
- The rapid adaptation of marketing and promotional activities to address a changing trade context and exploit lockdown demonstrates that a global crisis does not displace maximizing shareholder revenue as the key driver of corporate behavior.
- The appropriation of health and social justice causes and frontline workers in the guise of philanthropic initiatives illustrates how corporate social responsibility programmes are shaped by promotional priorities and constitute a specific form of marketing.
- The pandemic created new opportunities – otherwise unavailable – for unhealthy commodity companies to falsely position themselves as partners in progress for health and sustainable development with governments, international organisations, health agencies and leading NGOs.
- The volume and global reach of actions by alcohol and junk food industries demonstrate the need to advance international efforts to manage conflicts of interest.
- It is important to ensure that initiatives to address the pandemic are coherent with related health and development priorities, notably including effectively tackling NCDs. This imperative raises important questions for governments and for international organisations about their interactions with unhealthy commodity industries.