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Soda wars: What advocates can learn from Berkeley vs. Big Soda’s social media campaign


In November 2014, the small city of Berkeley, California passed the nation's first tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (aka "soda tax") with 76% of the vote. The campaign's success was largely due to grassroots advocacy efforts but was part of a larger, nationwide movement to address our growing obesity epidemic. Using social media to reach voters and health advocates was a key part of the pro-tax campaign strategy. 

One year after the tax went into effect, a new case study from JSI and partner Berkeley Media Studies Group discusses findings from an analysis of social media content created by the Berkeley sugary drink tax campaign (Berkeley vs. Big Soda). Continuing BMSG's research on soda tax debates, we sought to understand the pro-tax campaign's social media efforts both before and after the tax passed (from February 2014 to June 2015). To do so, we examined the campaign's Twitter and Facebook posts using content analysis methodology paired with social media analytics. The case study analyzes the different pro-tax arguments used in campaign posts and offers lessons learned and suggestions for how advocates can best utilize social media to support sugary drink tax efforts.

We found that the campaign primarily used social media to argue in favor of a soda tax in Berkeley, but also used channels to converse with other health advocates, promote local events, encourage voters to head to the polls, discuss other sugary drink policies (such as San Francisco's similar proposed ballot measure), and celebrate the successful passing of the tax. One of the key arguments that the campaign used was how the beverage industry was behaving badly; using this frame resonated well on both Facebook and Twitter, resulting in higher than average engagement with online audiences. Berkeley vs. Big Soda illuminated how the industry was acting inappropriately in the election (e.g., spending $2.4M on the opposition campaign in Berkeley) as well as the soda industry's marketing tactics. Somewhat surprisingly, posts mentioning the negative health effects of sugary drinks (such as chronic disease) were less likely to generate engagement.

Lastly, we offer nine specific recommendations for how soda tax advocates can most effectively use social media as a communication tool (see "Nine Recommendations for Sugary Drink Tax Advocates"). As the anti-sugary drink movement continues to gain momentum, with soda taxes and other policies as potential interventions to effect community-wide health improvements, health advocates should consider the use and impact of social media to spread their messages. Using Facebook and Twitter as advocacy tools can help shape soda tax debates and be part of a successful strategy to help pass sugary drink taxes.

For the latest soda tax news, follow @BMSG and @BerkvsBigSoda, and sign up for weekly updates.

See the full infographic and read more stories on the BMSG blog here. Read the full BMSG report on the soda tax here.