Is PepsiCo’s “Score For Your School” out of bounds?

Michele Simon’s blog Appetite For Profit recently featured a piece on PepsiCo’s “Score For Your School” promotion, decrying it as “stealth marketing” and in poor taste given youth obesity rates. I quote in part:

How thoughtful of Frito-Lay to create a fun and easy way for fans to help sports programs. Couldn’t have anything to do with how many more chips would get sold would it? Because if the company really cared, how about just sending a check to each Texas high school football team instead? This program… is capped at $90,000 in donations, a drop in the bucket for the nation’s largest salty snack purveyor.

But this marketing-disguised-as-philanthropy is by now old territory for PepsiCo. For the past year, the company has been gaining much positive PR with its ubiquitous Pepsi Refresh donation program.

This is only a small sampling of Michele’s rather vicious attack on PepsiCo (which owns the Frito-Lay brand, in case you’re confused from the change in references).

It’s a bit hard to know where to weigh in on this one; there is some validity over allowing a company like PepsiCo any access to marketing towards children at all at this kind of level. I admire a good marketing and/or PR campaign as much as any consultant in the field. I will admit to having a rather large soft spot for Fritos and the like-branded bean dip; indeed, a soft spot large enough that it was not all that long ago I was wearing size 42 pants (I currently have on a pair in size 38).

I have not looked up the details of the program. I am familiar enough with the Frito-Lay product line to know there is (or at least was) a baked variant of Lay’s potato chips along with other health-conscious offerings. It is quite possible to be health conscious and still participate in this campaign; however, the issue of appropriate boundaries for marketing remains.

I do think this campaign was not well planned by PepsiCo and the implications of encouraging the purchase of snack foods perceived as unhealthy (despite the fact this may not be true for some items) to help school sports teams should have been more carefully considered. Thirty, twenty, or maybe even ten years ago, this would have been an easy, non-controversial promotion, with everyone being happy and PepsiCo cashing in. Unfortunately, here in 2010, no matter how good the intentions, this type of campaign will draw criticism. Even if PepsiCo were to drop most of the unhealthy items tomorrow, it will be years to decades into the future before the unhealthy reputation of the Frito-Lay product line fades away.

Reputation is everything. PepsiCo forgot that.