Should PepsiCo be Funding Obesity Research at Yale?

Yale is certainly not the first university, nor the last, to receive corporate donations. Despite the hefty tuition fees, many schools obtain orders of magnitude more money from alumni, philanthropists, and corporations than from students. The dollars are used to build new lecture halls and labs, fund research, scholarships, and more. The benefactors participate in some sort of ceremony where a golden plaque is hung up on the relevant edifice.

In some cases though, there seems to be more than just a namesake involved. Take the case of a $250,000 contribution from PepsiCo, purveyor of fine sugary soft drinks and the gourmet triumvirate Doritos, Cheetos, and Tostitos. The money is going to a doctoral-student fellowship in obesity studies at the Yale School of Medicine.

When asked about a potential conflict of interest, or at least a moral dilemma, Yale’s School of Medicine dean maintained that the arrangement is “perfectly ethical”. But in an op-ed piece, WSJ’s Eric Felten touches upon what can be a slippery slope:

Still, Yale isn’t quite as innocent here as the administration makes out. The Yale Bowl could be renamed PepsiCo Stadium and there would be no suggestion that the arrangement was anything but a mercenary one—a straightforward advertising deal. But the corporate naming game has different implications when it invades the tweedier precincts of campus. When a business gets its name worked into the academic fabric of a school, it is buying something more than a place to slap a corporate insignia. There is the implication that the firm is a partner in the intellectual enterprise. read more…

It seems like everywhere you turn around these days, there will be corporate sponsorship. If it wouldn’t be effective, companies would not engage in this practice.It’s great PR. And somewhere in the back of the minds of the beneficiaries is the very natural human reflex of thankfulness – quid pro quo.

In a recent article in the Economist, PepsiCo is portrayed as a compnay reinventing itself as a leading brand attuned to the needs of the consumer in the first half of the 21st century. It has hired an army of nutrition experts and food scientists to slash fat, salt, and sugar from its products. And it is engaging in various PR activities that have limited financial downside, but potentially huge brand upside. Could funding obesity research be a part of the new Pepsi?

Back to Yale. You may ask yourself what’s the big deal? How can PepsiCo have any say, or affect academic, peer reviewed research? Imagine if the Yale contribution goes to research the effects of exercise on obesity instead of the effects of sugary soft drinks on obesity. Not a biggie, right? But what if 100 universities design experiments to show that exercise is the critical component in obesity, and not excess calories from junk foods? We may begin to believe that we consumers are the problem, thus letting the food manufacturers off of the hook.

What do you think?

[Thanks to Michelle Simon for the hat tip.]

  • Doug

    The money Pepsi spends on obesity research is just a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of their marketing budget.

    And that’s exactly what it is….marketing.

    Pepsi (and other junk food companies) can see the writing on the wall(re fat tax) and are trying to get out ahead of this assault on their products.

    We see the same thing with regard to environmentalism ans companies attempt to “green-wash” their products/services.

    In Pepsi’s case, we should call it fat-washing.