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Did COVID-19 help Big Business punt harmful products?

Clever marketing by industries promoting unhealthy products during the pandemic could have negative outcomes for public health, a new report argues.

Resource details:

Publication title: Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm – Unhealthy commodity industries and COVID-19
Author(s): NCD Alliance and SPECTRUM Consortium
Publication date: 9 September 2020

What the report is about:

The NCD Alliance is a civil society network of organisations working to reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). SPECTRUM is an association of various universities collaborating on the economic determinants of health inequalities. The two organisations produced the report examining how leading commodity corporations — such as those producing “alcohol, fossil fuels, infant milk formula, tobacco and ultra-processed food and drink products” — responded to the new coronavirus pandemic. The report outlines the implications and consequences these corporate responses have on health and sustainable development.

Key take-aways from the report:

Method and data:

  • Data was crowdsourced with the NCD Alliance and SPECTRUM Consortium asking researchers and activists whose work focuses on curbing non-communicable diseases to submit examples of how corporations were responding to COVID-19. 
  • People submitted entries by completing an online survey detailing the corporate responses to the pandemic that they observed since 30 January 2020 (when the World Health Organisation declared a global health emergency). This data was collected from between 5 May 2020 until 17 July 2020.
  • Details about the location, industry, behaviour, and description of the corporate initiatives were recorded.
  • 786 complete responses were captured from 94 countries.


  • Leveraging the pandemic
    • As part of their marketing response to the pandemic corporations linked their products with the work of health professionals and other frontline workers by for example offering free doughnuts to frontline workers. 
    • In developing countries, unhealthy industries used the opportunity to present themselves as providing essential support when governments could not by donating hospital equipment or meals for hospitals, for example.
    • Several drinks companies specially rebranded their products to thank frontline workers, in some instances also making sure to position own employees as a central part of the COVID-19 response. In India, Lays pushed out a campaign to appreciate “each hero in the supply chain who works tirelessly against the odds to make sure Lays brings joy to millions across the country.”
    • Public health protocols taken up during the pandemic, such as social distancing  or wearing masks, have seen corporations commodifying and branding personal protective equipment and selling social distancing. This includes taking advantage of virtual ‘billboard’ opportunities offered by online platforms such as Zoom or offering free masks with purchases as an incentive for increased spending.
  • COVID-19 and corporate collaboration
    • Through partnerships with government ministries, health agencies and civil society corporations have signalled themselves as contributors to global health and development
    • Checks and balances set up for the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund prevents the alcohol, arms and tobacco industries from donating any money. There are no such rules for drinks and processed food companies, however. As a consequence of this the fund has received millions in contributions from Pepsico and industry-backed nonprofits such as the Starbucks Foundation. 
    • The report uses as one of its examples the beer producer, AB InBev’s campaign tagline “more ways we are part of the solution” and how this works to position the company as collaborating to the COVID-19 response and a central contributor to sustainable development.
    • Why does this matter? The researchers note that creating the appearance of working in collaboration with governments and health agencies is a longstanding strategy used by corporations. 

You can find and download the report here.

[Please note: Information on the new coronavirus is rapidly changing. Please refer to the NCD Alliance website for the latest information. Visit www.sacoronavirus.co.za for updates on South Africa’s coronavirus response.]