Arthur W. Page Competition Submission: Forever the Villain?



Consumers may be relieved to know that the laundry list of ingredients, which most packaged goods inherit, will get a little smaller. What started with a highly publicized study from UCLA on the obesity-causing effect of high-fructose corn syrup, turned into a news release battle over the actual labeling of high-fructose corn syrup, leaving companies like ConAgra, Starbucks and Kraft with little choice but to remove it from their products (Fredrix, 2010; Wall Street Journal, 2012).


The truth is, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has had a rough existence – at least in the past decade. In films like Fathead, Fast Food Nation and a particularly damaging 2004 American Society for Clinical Nutrition study (Bray, Nielson and Popkin, 2004), a new health-conscious America was exposed to the possible ills of HFCS. Recently, a study from UCLA thrust HFCS into the spotlight once again. Although specifically looking at an omega-3 deficiency, the study concluded with the notion that a diet high in HFCS “increases vulnerability to impaired cognitive functions” (Agrawal & Gomez-Pinilla, 2012). As the topic of obesity in the United States became newsworthy, the Corn Refiners’ Association (CRA) was forced to respond to the study, its critics and stakeholders.


This case study will examine the nuances of crisis management through the actions of the CRA in its attempt to respond to negative media coverage and the scientific community.




On May 15, 2012, the UCLA Newsroom issued an edited version of a previous press release that announced a new study was being published in the Journal of Physiology by UCLA researchers. The release announced: “Attention, college students cramming between midterms and finals: Binging on soda and sweets for as little as six weeks may make you stupid” (Schmidt, 2012). Aside from the attention-grabbing headline, the release went on to quote the study: “…Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters you brain’s ability to learn and remember information. But adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage” (Schmidt, 2012).


The media and food bloggers pounced on the researchers’ findings. A particularly scathing headline read: “The Common Food Ingredient That’s Making You Stupid” (Zerbe, 2012). The initial press release and a blog by the popular health site, Rodale, lead to an avalanche of commentary on the ills of HFCS. Furthering the need for a response, ConAgra, Starbucks and Kraft Foods dropped HFCS from their labeling.  Aside from the researchers’ findings, the CRA has had a long-standing issue with the image of HFCS as being ‘artificial’ (Shea, LeFebvre and Dockter, 2012). The CRA was now faced with a product whose reputation has been damaged once again and now needed to respond to the media, the scientific community and various stakeholders.


The Economics of Sugar


Economics has also played a role in the rise of HFCS usage. In 1977, both sugar tariffs and quotas increased the cost of importing sugar. As the cost of domestic sugar rose to nearly two times the global price, the price of corn has remained relatively cheap due to government subsidies (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2006). As the price of HFCS fell, so too did the negative sentiments of the sweetener (Shea et al, 2012).  By the 1980s, Americans were consuming approximately three million short tons (Motherlinda, 2006) and by 1988, HFCS accounted for 44 percent of the U.S. sweetener market (Shea, et al, 2012). Domestically, sugar and HFCS went from parallel market-shifts to shifting in opposition. To further this point, in 2004 when the American Society for Clinical Nutrition article was published and subsequent negative media coverage followed, the usage of HFCS fell 11 percent until 2008 (Mercer, 2012). During that same period, sugar refining rose 8 percent (Mercer, 2012).


The Sugar Association and Pending Lawsuits


The Sugar Association is very interested in the public’s shifting perspective of HFCS. When the effects of HFCS on obesity and cognitive abilities are questioned, the Sugar Association can promote their product as an alternative for both brands and consumers. The more distant the association of HFCS to sugar is, the greater control the Sugar Association has of the overall market – in affinity and revenue. For this reason, both the CRA and Sugar Association have clashed on multiple occasions- both in court and through the media. The focal point being, the labeling of HFCS. The CRA has held that “sugar is sugar” ( The reasoning is that if HFCS and sugar are both nutritionally and metabolically equivalent, then why not label it as such. For this reason, in 2010 the CRA started referring to HFCS as ‘corn sugar’ as part of their rebranding process (Skidmore, 2011).  In April 2011, a group of sugar farmers and refiners represented by the Sugar Association filed a lawsuit over the CRA’s use of ‘corn sugar’. Their argument was that the new labeling misinformed the consumer and that this constituted false advertising (Skidmore, 2012; Nestle, 2011a).


A second series of lawsuits erupted at the same time the UCLA Newsroom issued its series of news releases and the FDA’s rejection of HFCS’ new label. Recently, the Sugar Association sued the CRA for its new, but misleading marketing campaign centered on the claim that HFCS is a ‘natural’ sweetener (Nestle, 2012c). In a news release, attorney Mark Lanier said that the suit was an attempt to shed light on the “scare tactics” of the CRA and their promotion of misleading information (Sugar Association, 2012a). In September, the CRA along with Cargill INC countersued. The counter claim states that the Sugar Association has attempted to deceive and ultimately influence consumers into believing that sugar is healthier than HFCS (Gillman, 2012). All three cases are still in litigation.


The continual lawsuits have not only continued to bring attention to the controversy surrounding HFCS, but also opened the doors for many to question the motives of the CRA.




Scientific Background: High-Fructose Corn Syrup


“High fructose corn syrup is one of the most misunderstood products in the food supply.” David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D. – (CRA, 2012a)


HFCS begins as cornstarch that has been treated with alpha-amylase to produce polysaccharides. Glucoamylase is added to the modified cornstarch to break it down further and produce glucose. Glucose-isomerase, a third enzyme is then added. This addition converts glucose to a mix of 42 percent glucose and 52 percent fructose (additional sugars make up the additional elements). The blend is taken through a chromatography step that yields a mixture that is now 90 percent fructose. The batch is back-blended to produce a concentration that is about 55 percent fructose- thus, high-fructose corn syrup (Motherlinda, 2006).


Although, initially conceived in the 1960s, HFCS was not mass-produced until the 1970s. It was first introduced to a mass audience in 1984 when Coca-Cola and Pepsi made the switch to HFCS (Bovard, 1998). The indoctrination of HFCS into the American diet has grown incrementally since its conception. Currently, Americans are consuming about 60 pounds of HFCS each year (Nestle, 2011b).


The use of HFCS as a food additive has increased for multiple reasons. According to the CRA, HFCS use has increased because it is cheaper than sugar, makes everyday food taste better, and improves the composition of the product over a longer period of time (


Historical Background: A Sweet Success?


The potential damage caused by a diet high in HFCS became of interest to the media with the release of research that suggested a link between HFCS and obesity (Mercer, 2012). The timing of the research is important, because it fell on the heels of American’s growing resistance to processed food (trans fat). The initial study, published in the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, posited the “increase in consumption of HFCS has a temporal relation to the epidemic of obesity, and the overconsumption of HFCS in calorically sweetened beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity” (Bray, Nielsen and Popkin, p. 1, 2004).


In 2008, the CRA launched its Sweet Surprise campaign.  The 18-month campaign, which crossed all media, asked the consumer to reexamine their ideas of HFCS and its usage (CRA commercial). The CRA looked to quell concerns by branding HFCS as a similar and safe product that “is basically the same as sugar” ( The CRA also created the website, Packed with expert testimony, educational kits, press releases and video, the website is meant to clarify the effect of HFCS in our diets. Similarly, the site responded to the potentially damaging research. On the “Media and Food Fears” page, an interested party could be walked through the many ways the media may spin the harm that HFCS may cause ( There is also a section that debunks the research altogether. Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest Michael Jacobson is quoted in an Associated Press article: “The authors of this paper misunderstand chemistry, draw erroneous conclusions and have done a disservice to the public in generating this controversy” (Media Food and Fears Page).


In the end, the CRA’s message was simple; HFCS was safe, if consumed in ‘moderation’. The use of moderation was the consistent message among most of the campaign’s content.


While the actual comparison, both chemically and in labeling may be up for debate, this attempted reframing of the product only ignited those in opposition to it (Wyly, 2008). Huffington Post blogger Christina Wyly offered this commentary: “Moderation? Fine yes, I am with you. I use ‘in moderation’ as my excuse for all my vices, so I can grant them that one, but it’s in everything! Most people don’t even know that they are eating it!” (Wyly, 2008).


Concurrently, the labeling of HFCS went mainstream when Saturday Night Live chose to run a spoof of a commercial paid for by the CRA. In the CRA-sponsored ad, two mothers converse over a gallon of red juice. An inquisitive mother, who is made to seem aloof, asks the other mother if she knows about the harm HFCS may cause. The second mother responded with, “…it is natural and like sugar, good in moderation” (Corn Refiners Association, 2008).


What most commentators and the public struggled with, was that obesity was on the rise and so was the amount of HFCS in the typical American diet – even if the latter was unbeknownst to most consumers (Nestle, 2012b).




As of 2011, Americans’ consumption of HFCS has fallen to a 20-year low (Skidmore, 2011). Many consumer advocates expressed a similar sentiment that the President and CEO of Western Sugar Cooperative, Inder Mathur, expressed when responding to the news of the FDA rejecting the CRA’s petition to rename HFCS: “…if consumers are concerned about your product, then you should improve it or explain its benefits, not try to deceive people about its name or distort scientific facts” (Skidmore, 2011).


According to Coombs (p. 265, 2004) organizations that have a history of similar crises will garner a more intense “reputational threat” and should use past events to help inform how to protect the organization’s reputation. In this particular example, Coombs offers the Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) as a crisis response strategy for organizations (2004). This particular theory argues that as the possible damage to an organization’s reputation increases, the response strategy should acknowledge responsibility and address stakeholder’s concerns. SCCT is an extension of Attribution Theory. Attribution Theory posits that in the event of a crisis, individuals will either attribute the crisis directly to the organization involved (personal) or attribute the crises to an external factor (Coombs, 2007). As such, a crisis response strategy should be crafted to shape stakeholder’s perceptions or attributions of the crises and organization.


The CRA must provide external attributions (specific positive situational factors) to minimize the damage done through the published UCLA study. What the CRA must battle is what Coombs (2007) defined as high consistency, that is, an organization having similar, repetitive problems. The more visible, consistent incidents that occur, the stronger the attribution becomes with stakeholders. In this light, Mathur was correct. The need to strengthen positive internal attributions of consumers should be the focus of the CRA’s communication efforts.


If viewed through the framework of SCCT, the CRA should try to prevent the public from making internal (or personal) attributions (Coombs, 2007). The CRA attempted to shift the publics’ perception in two ways. First, the CRA attempted to change the view of HFCS as a safe artificial alternative to sugar, which is considered the natural product. Over multiple mediums the CRA asserted: “High fructose corn syrup is nearly identical in composition to table sugar” ( Secondly, and in a much quieter manner, the CRA attempted to change the name of HFCS to corn sugar. There are obvious market implications for both the CRA and the Sugar Association with the publishing of the UCLA research. In the eyes of consumers, the conclusions drawn from the research would damage the reputation of HFCS. It would be hard for consumers to continue to view HFCS as a healthy alternative with the headlines that the study generated. The CRA should have planned for some pushback from the Sugar Association with the new corn sugar terminology used in its marketing. When the Sugar Association responded in the form of a lawsuit, the CRA had a decision to make. Based on the timeline presented, the CRA changed its focus to a refutation-like strategy, getting into a news release battle with the Sugar Association.


This strategy, coupled with the attempted name-change, produced continual skepticism among consumers. Instead of focusing on creating positive associations among consumers, the CRA targeted the Sugar Associations’ attacks on their label change.


Secondly, the CRA attempted to distance the link between HFCS and obesity. The CRA went through a near-identical situation in 2004. When the American Society for Clinical Nutrition article was published, the CRA was forced to respond in defense of its product. On the CRA’s website and subsequent news release the association promoted a new study discrediting the link established in the initial American Society for Clinical Nutrition article.  At this same period, the CRA sent multiple publications to physicians in America asserting the similarity between HFCS and cane sugar. According to one physician, he even received a “personal letter from the Corn Refiner’s Association outlining every mention of the problems with HFCS in our diet-whether in print, blogs, books, radio, or television. They warned me of the errors of my ways and put me on ‘notice’” (Hyman, 2012). The CRA also created the Sweet Surprise Blog: Where Common Sense Meets Science. The goal of the blog was to disseminate tips to keep American’s healthy and to question writings that discredited the CRA.


If the past is any indication, the CRA will need to move forward by establishing HFCS as a viable and healthy sweetener in the minds of both the consumers, physicians and purchasers of the product. The next section will outline the crises timeline and the implementation of the CRA’s crises response strategy.




What follows is a timeline documenting the CRA’s response to the UCLA study and UCLA Newsroom press release.


May 14, 2012 The UCLA Newsroom issued the initial news release on the publishing of “‘Metabolic Syndrome’ in the Brain: Deficiency in Omega-3 Fatty Acid Exacerbates Dysfunctions in Insulin Receptor Signaling and Cognition” in The Journal of Physiology. It was reported that David Knowles, the CRA’s spokesman petitioned the UCLA Newsroom to change the wording of the release and a subsequent quote after the release was published (Bonvie, 2012).


May 15, 2012 The UCLA Newsroom issued a revised press release announcing a study that would be published on the effects of high-fructose corn syrup on the cognitive abilities of rats. According to the release, the researchers were specifically looking at the fructose in HFCS (Schmidt, 2012). The CRA felt the release did not adequately articulate the distinction between fructose and HFCS (CRA, 2012a).  The UCLA Newsroom retracted the first release (not accessible online) and issued a second release. The new press release contained a lengthy statement explaining the amendment of the original, underneath the headline. It read:


Correction: Paragraph 5 of this release was changed from an earlier version to reflect that the study focused on fructose generally, not specifically on high-fructose corn syrup; that high-fructose corn syrup is not necessarily “six times sweeter” than cane sugar; and that Americans consume approximately 35 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per capita annually, not “more than 40 pounds.” The researcher’s quote in paragraph 6 has also been changed slightly to avoid the implication that the study focused solely on high-fructose corn syrup. (Schmidt, 2012)


Corrected Quote: “We’re less concerned about naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants,” explained Gomez-Pinilla, who is also a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute and Brain Injury Research Center. “We’re more concerned about the fructose in high-fructose corn syrup, which is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative. (Schmidt, 2012)


May 16, 2012 In a public response, the CRA issued a news release discrediting the use of HFCS in the study and the news release. The CRA-issued release took issue with the marked physiological and nutritional differences that rats and humans exhibit. The release also made it clear that the rats were given fructose and not HFCS (CRA, 2012a).


May 23, 2012 While the CRA was responding to the UCLA and the media, the association had been in the process of petitioning the FDA. After two years, the FDA denied the CRA’s petition to allow HFCS to be labeled as corn sugar. The CRA first petitioned the FDA in 2010 (Choi, 2012). The rejection was due to consistency. Sugar is seen as solid and crystalline, HFCS is seen as a liquid or as syrup. Secondly, it would put those with a fructose intolerance at risk (FDA, personal communication, May 30, 2012) Because of the FDA’s ruling, HFCS will continue to be labeled as an added sugar on the nutritional fact panel on food and beverages (Ad Age, 2012). Both the CRA and Sugar Association have been locked in litigation since 2011, due to the possibility of a new label. The Sugar Association viewed the petition as a means to disguise the CRA’s product (Sugar Assn., 2012a). The CRA counter sued as of September 4 (CRA, 2012c).


May 24, 2012 “When you don’t have the facts, generate confusion” (CRA, 2012b).  The CRA issued a press release attacking the Sugar Association for creating a massive “misinformation campaign” (CRA, 2012b). The release came a day after the CRA was denied its petition and the Sugar Association issued a release repeating the findings of the FDA (Sugar Assn., 2012b).


September 2012 A report is published in the International Journal of Obesity that claims HFCS is not the reason for America’s obesity epidemic. The report questioned the researchers use of temporal association to draw causality (Klurfeld et al, 2012). Word quickly spread that the research was funded by the CRA. Authors Rippe and Klurfeld are cited as having direct ties with the CRA and Angelopouls received a research grant from Rippe Health and Lifestyle (which was founded by Rippe and is funded by the CRA) for consulting fees (Mercola, 2012).


Evaluation and Discussion


On May 14, 2012, a study was going to be published that would question the impact of HFCS in American’s diets. The UCLA Newsroom released the details of the study and lead with this headline: “Attention, college students cramming between midterms and finals: Binging on soda and sweets for as little as six weeks may make you stupid.” Furthermore, this was a time that Americans were becoming increasingly sensitive to what the media was labeling as the obesity epidemic. With large brands like ConAgra and Starbucks dropping HFCS, there were larger market implications for the CRA than just the link to obesity. Interestingly enough, the CRA experienced a similar type of crisis in 2004. In both cases, there was an obvious lack of consistency and clarity in their messaging. What the CRA needed to address was the view of HFCS as a product that was seen as artificial, thus making the link between HFCS and sugar much less clear in the minds of consumers.


What was not a part of their communication strategy, but became the focus of the media was the pending petition the CRA had in the hands of the FDA. The CRA’s ability to craft timely responses was never in question. In fact, their website and health and wellness blog both promoted a very consistent message. What made the CRA a “villain” in the eyes of the media was the lack of customer-centric messaging that portrayed high-fructose corn sugar (HFCS) as similar to sugar. The CRA hoped that a change the labeling of HFCS to corn sugar would quell concerns. In the CRA’s mind, corn sugar does not carry the same negative connotations as HFCS, and depending on the labeling, may not stand out on packaging. Instead of educating the consumer on the differences, the CRA chose to use dubious tactics to change public opinion. It could be argued that the media and the public had moved on from the question of HFCS’ similarity to sugar, however, the motives of the CRA will remain questionable, given the lawsuits, FDA conflict, and public relations tactics that unfolded during this period. Because of the CRA’s tactics the media controlled most of the messaging, not the association.


Secondly, the CRA needed to address concerns that HFCS was a major contributor to the rise in obesity rates. In a second attempt to distance HFCS from obesity, the CRA promoted a new study discrediting the link established in the initial American Society for Clinical Nutrition article. Even if this was an attempt by the CRA to sway public opinion, it asked the consumer to wade through scientific data to make any conclusions. Whether or not this was a good tactic did not become a discussion point. When news broke that the study promoted by the CRA was primarily funded by the CRA, any benefit the study may have established for the consumer went unheard. The media focused on the obvious vested interest of those involved in the study- not the science.


This case study offers a unique perspective in crises management. On one hand, the CRA employed appropriate strategies when communicating directly with consumers. However, their actions towards the Sugar Association and the handling of the name-change presented a different message. As complex as crisis communications is, the CRA actions spoke much more loudly than any campaign could.


Teaching Note:


For public relations students, the CRA case study offers the ability to better understand crisis communications and the development of crisis response strategies. Students can also develop a better understanding of how crisis communications can be created within a larger/overall integrated marketing communication strategy.


Students should read the case study before class. They should be able to articulate the key points of the case study, identify major stakeholders, and the CRA’s strategies to respond to the crisis. Secondly, students should be able to apply broader communication concepts to the specifics of this case. Specifically, they should develop an understanding of:


1. the power of the media to shape public opinion;

2. the external/internal attributions shape reputation and dictate messaging in the event of a crisis;

3. the role of public relations in a crisis situation; and

4. how crisis communications can be developed within the framework of a current IMC campaign.



Assignment 1: To gain a better understanding of how to apply theory to practice, students can employ Situational Crisis Communication Theory (Coombs, 2007) to help craft a crisis communication strategy. This theory identifies how certain aspects of a crisis influence attributions of the crisis, thus affecting the reputation of the organization. The theory also facilitates understanding of how stakeholders will respond to a crisis based on known attributions shaping the subsequent communication strategies.


Based on the case study, students should identify both internal and external attributions of identified stakeholders. Internal attributions, in this case, link an outcome to an organization (consumption of HFCS leads to obesity). External attributions link extraneous concepts to an explanation of the crisis (Americans lack nutritional knowledge, thus obesity). Students should also decide whether a diminish crisis response strategy or a rebuild crisis response strategy is needed (Coombs, 2007).  A diminish crises response strategy is used when minimal attributions are made by the consumer, when the organization has had a history of similar crises and have a potentially negative reputation. The idea is to lessen the connection, over time, between the organization and the crises. The rebuild crisis response strategy is used when a high level of attribution has been assigned to the crisis and the organization has had a history of similar crises. Rebuild strategies look to change the perception of the organization by taking positive, purposeful actions to remedy the crisis. The consumer must view these actions as actual form of aid. Based on their conclusions, students should then propose a crisis communication strategy for the case study at-hand.


Assignment 2: The CRA has faced two similar crises surrounding published research. As a group, students can examine how the CRA responded to the backlash of the 2004 published research. Students should be able to research the Sweet Surprise Campaign and come up with strengths and weakness of the campaign – similar to a communications audit. Moving forward, students can develop a crisis communication plan using what they researched and apply it to this case study. Students should be able to articulate how the current crises should be addressed? Who are the stakeholders, and how should they be targeted? What type of messaging should be generated for the public, and how would they work to manage media relations?








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Shea, N., LeFebvre & Dockter, M. (2012). High fructose corn syrup: Social and economic effects. Retrieved from:


Skidmore, S. (2011, April 30). Farmers sue over ‘corn sugar’ campaign. The Daily Herald. Retrieved from:


Sugar Association. (2012a). Enough is enough: There’s only one sugar…and it’s not high-fructose corn syrup [Press Release]. Retrieved from:


Sugar Association. (2012b). FDA denies petition to rename high-fructose corn syrup [Press Release]. Retrieved from:


Wyly, C. (2008, November 25). Sweet surprise [Web log post]. Retrieved from:


Zerbe, L. (2012, May 22). The Common food ingredient that’s making you stupid [Web log post]. Retrieved from:


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