Big brands cashed in on Covid-19, study finds

Major producers of alcohol, junk food and soft drinks have used Covid-19 to promote products at the expense of public health, research suggests.

A new report involving Edinburgh researchers details hundreds of examples of leading brands leveraging the coronavirus pandemic to further their corporate interests.

Manufacturers of unhealthy food and drinks – and producers of alcohol and tobacco – have been guilty of ‘signalling virtue while promoting harm’, the study has found.

It warns of a ‘corporate capture’ of the crisis by industries that fuel a rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as heart disease, some cancers, respiratory disease and diabetes.

The authors say that such actions risk exacerbating the pandemic as people living with NCDs are suffering worse outcomes from Covid-19.

Key input

Professor Linda Bauld, of the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute, leads SPECTRUM, the multi-university consortium which undertook the study in collaboration with the NCD Alliance – a civil society network of 2,000 organisations in 170 countries.

Professor Bauld said there are clear links between junk food, smoking and alcohol and the NCDs that put people at greatest risk from Covid.

“Many countries have been hard hit – not just by a lack of public health infrastructure, but because of the fundamental vulnerability of their populations,” said Professor Bauld.

“One of the major reasons for that vulnerability are non-communicable diseases – and many of these NCDs are directly caused by the products that these companies make.”

It is abundantly clear that unhealthy commodity industries will continue to adapt their engagement with COVID-19 as the pandemic, policy responses and economic crises evolve.

Dr Sarah Hill, study co-authorSchool of Social & Political Science

Expert analysis

Professor Jeff Collin, of the University’s School of Social & Political Science, an investigator with the SPECTRUM Consortium, was a co-author of the report.

Covid-19, said Professor Collin, has given global health an unprecedented prominence and its impact is powerfully illuminating an important policy window.

It is, he added, one that is far too significant to allow unhealthy commodity industries to define the agenda moving forward.

“Countering their efforts to do so is essential to developing coherent approaches to health and sustainable development that can help build back better for all,” said Professor Collin.

Changing strategies

Researchers noted that, from the outset of the crisis, many producers of unhealthy commodities adapted their strategies in an attempt to capitalise on the pandemic.

These strategies included tailored marketing stunts and the fostering of partnerships with governments, international agencies and NGOs.

The report – called Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm – was produced by crowdsourcing examples from advocacy and research specialists around the world.

Researchers gathered nearly 800 examples of marketing, lobbying and public relations tactics from more than 90 countries. The research team also included Dr Sarah Hill and Dr Rob Ralston of the School of Social & Political Science,

Mapping this activity is vital if we are to shape a fine-tuned response to COVID-19 and at the same time avoid further exacerbating the pre-existing NCD epidemic

Dr Rob Ralston, study co-authorSchool of Social & Political Science

Extensive list

Most cases concerned alcohol, ultra-processed food and soft drinks, but others included breast milk substitutes, fossil fuel, gambling and tobacco.

Examples included a fast food franchise in Canada that offered a free facemask in exchange for purchasing two sub rolls, suggesting it was a great way to ‘protect you and your kids’.

In the US, a burger chain waived delivery fees to encourage people to ’stay home’, while donating 250,000 burgers to American nurses

A fast food giant in Missouri offered a free ‘thank you meal’ to healthcare workers and encouraged them to share selfies about it on social media.

Viral visibility

A doughnut chain that donated products to key workers in New Zealand, the US and the UK gained a ‘viral visibility at a time when they were reducing spending on their marketing budget’.

A fizzy drinks conglomerate expressed its thanks to healthcare workers in Mexico by emblazoning cans and bottles with 'gracias'.

In Western Australia, alcohol giants lobbied for a relaxation of takeaway restrictions, saying alcohol is 'a way of life for many Australians and, in moderation, it’s good for your health'.

The study highlights how alcohol firms successfully lobbied the UK Government to include off-licences in its list of essential shops and home deliveries were allowed by some councils.

Related links


NCD Alliance

Usher Institute

School of Social & Political Science

Picture Credit - via Getty images