British soft drinks industry caught out in deception

Congratulations to Mishal Hussain for catching out the British Soft Drinks Association’s Gavin Partington as he tried to mislead the public by using one of the oldest PR deception tricks in the book.

Partington, the director general of the BSDA, was appearing on the Today programme –  – to argue against the British government’s proposal to put a levy on sugary drinks.

This is virtually the only measure to survive from the government’s original plan to have a major crackdown on junk-food; the policy has now been reduced from a “game changing moment” to the “start of a conversation.”

During the interview with Hussain, in which he tried to represent his members, which include Coca Cola and PepsiCo as victims, Partington talked about research that proved his case; his initial statement did not mention that the BDSA had commissioned the research – indeed taken on its own would leave the impression that it had no involvement in it.

It was only when he was pressed that Partington was forced to admit the BDSA’s involvement.

The exchange went like this.

Partington said that the sugary drinks tax “will cost 4,000 job losses. This analysis is based on a rigorous academic study by Oxford Economics and we know from experience in Mexico that the tax there has simply resulted in a calorie reduction of six calories on an overall diet of 6,000 calaories.”

Hussain then asked: “Is that the report you commissioned.”

Partington: “We did indeed commission it and it is right that we should study and analyse the impact.”

Lest anyone think that Partington’s initial failure to mention the BDSA’s involvement was a slip of the tongue, they should look at the BDSA’s press release when the report was published. If there was a mention, it was so deep in the sub-text it escaped me.

Presenting commissioned reports as independent research is one of the oldest tricks in the corporate presentatation book. If you want to see another example, look at the way Energy UK, the gas industry’ trade association, presents research carried out on its behalf.

I should make clear that I am not saying here such research automatically lacks integrity – though it is very rare for such research to contradict publicly the interests of the person commissioning it.

All I do suggest is that for research to be credible the organisation commissioning it should identify itself prominently. It is equally wrong – however much companies and lobby groups may argue to the contrary – to label any commissioned research as independent.

The one certainty is that we are going to see and hear quite a lot of Partington as the debate on sugar taxes and junk-food intensifies.

And it is worth noting that he represents a trade association rather than a specific company. Over the last 15 years or so the number of trade associations has grown like topsy and their role has changed dramatically from a discreet representative of their industry to aggressive lobbyist.

In part this reflects the media demands but it is also very convenient for the companies. For people like Partington will never talk in specifics (he won’t for example talk about anything directly to do with an individual company). This enables an industry to appear open and also present its argument without really having to answer a direct question about what its companies do.

If you doubt how prevalent this has become, look at my analysis of this.


It is not for me to state here whether or not a sugar tax will contribute to the nation’s health. All I do know is that one should be extremely suspicious about the integrity of any industry that cowers behind its trade association and is anything less than totally open about the research it commissions.


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