Obesity War Makes Coca-cola Defensive

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When all the generals in the Obesity War – from Michelle Obama to New York mayor Mike Bloomberg to all kinds of private advocacy organizations with “public” in their name – have made your product the main target, you’ve got a big, fat problem.

Soda companies “are being attacked from every direction,” says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Legislators are proposing taxes on sugary drinks, schools have kicked out full-calorie soft drinks, and New York City is imposing a size limit on soft drinks served at restaurants.”

Yesterday, the soda industry’s biggest brand – Coca-Cola – took to cable television to defend itself with advertising. Predictably, and almost immediately, all the predictable critics started vehemently attacking the effort.

But for the wrong reasons.

The campaign

A two-minute video started airing yesterday on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. Another spot – mercifully a :30 – will air on the final “American Idol” episode tomorrow night and again in the Super Bowl pre-game show.

“There’s an important conversation going on about obesity out there, and we want to be a part of the conversation,” said Stuart Kronauge, general manager of sparkling beverages for Coca-Cola North America, in a prepared statement.

“It’s the first time we’re really leaning into the conversation,” Coca-Cola spokeswoman Diana Garza Ciarlante agreed. “We’re doing it in a way that’s anchored in what people expect of Coca-Cola. They expect us to be part of the dialogue, to lead where we can and to be responsive.”

The two-minute commercial “lays out Coca-Cola’s record of providing drinks with fewer calories and notes that weight gain is the result of consuming too many calories of any kind — not just soda,” writes the AP’s Candice Choi.

After telling us that Coke’s been around for 125 years, the voice-over says, “Today, we’d like people to come together on something that concerns all of us: obesity. The long-term health of our families and the country is at stake.” It goes on to state that

  • some 180 of Coca-Cola’s 650 beverage products are low- or no-calorie drinks.
  • they’re printing calorie counts on the fronts of their soda cans.
  • they’ve switched the product mix in school vending machines to diet sodas and flavored waters.
  • they’ve introduced smaller, 7.5-ounce cans.
  • they’re posting calorie counts on vending machines a year before they’d have been legally forced to.

“Beating obesity will take action by all of us, based on one simple common-sense fact,” it goes on (and on and on). “All calories count, no matter where they come from, including Coca-Cola and everything else with calories, and if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.”

The :30 comprises video clips of people doing things that burn off the “140 happy calories” in a can of full-sugar Coke – walking the dog for 25 minutes, dancing, sharing a laugh with friends, doing a victory dance after bowling a strike.

The critics

The critics who’ve been on Coke’s case for years were, predictably, scathingly critical about this campaign – not the least for the very fact that it’s (gasp) advertising.

“This is a public relations move,” declares the CSPI’s Jacobson. “They’re trying to disarm the public.” His “Public” organization has been after Coke for years and last October released a video showing Coke’s computer-generated polar bears getting seriously sick with diabetes and other health problems from drinking too much soda.

“Public health lawyer” Michelle Simon also blasts the commercials as being “public relations,” all about “confusing the public.”

One critic, refreshingly, finds fault not with the fact that the advertising is advertising, but with the advertising’s actual content. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill nutrition professor Barry Popkin takes issue with the claim that all calories are created equal. “Yes, other foods matter,” he concedes, “but the biggest single source contributor to child and adult obesity in the USA is sugar-sweetened beverages.”

But “no nutritionist would ever tell you that it’s okay to substitute calories from fruits and vegetables for soda in order to achieve weight loss,” Deborah Kotz writes  in the Boston Globe.

USA Today nutrition writer Nancy Hellmich notes that “Males consume an average of 178 calories a day from all sugary drinks, including sodas, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and sweetened bottled waters; females consume 103 calories, according to government data.”

According to another government’s figures – the UK’s Health Estimated Average Requirements – men should consume 2,250 calories a day, women 1,940. This makes “all sugary drinks” less than 10 percent of the average daily intake – even less when you count just sodas and not the “fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and sweetened bottled waters.”

So how does that make Coke what Popkin calls “one of the major causes of obesity in the USA”?

Confusion to our enemies

While Michelle Simon, Esq., claims that the campaign is about “confusing the public,” at least some of the public’s confusion comes from a different source.

Garza Ciarlante notes that Coca-Cola’s consumer research showed people thought there were as many as 900 calories in a can of soda. The actual total for a 12-ounce can is 140.

The 7.5-ounce cans, which are expected to be in distribution throughout 90% of the country by year’s end, contain 100 calories. This is the exact same amount as in a six-ounce cup of fat-free yogurt.

So these are all wrong reasons for hating the campaign. Unfortunately, nobody’s talking about the right ones. Until now.

The Nixon defense and other lame excuses

Coke’s new campaign is seriously flawed – not because all advertising is bad, but because at least the first commercial is bad advertising, both in content and execution (specifically in its use of tried-and-failed rhetorical techniques).

  • Defensiveness – “It is the first time the company has gone on the offensive to tackle widespread criticism,” writes Stephanie Strom in the New York Times. But the tone and content of the first commercial are purely defensive, in the both military and psychological senses of the word.
  • Talking in code – The reference to Coke’s having been around for 125 years (and its B-roll archival footage) at the beginning of the two-minute voice-over aren’t just about nostalgia. They’re a kind of shorthand for saying, “Since we’ve been around for 85 years before the Obesity Epidemic first reared its ugly head in the 1970s, it’s not our fault.” So is all the talk about “coming together” and people from all walks of life “taking action to beat obesity.”  You won’t get that from the commercial, at least without subtitles. Maybe the “policy makers” who the New York Times says are the target audience will; they talk in code all the time.
  • Preaching – According to Garza Ciarlante, Coca-Cola tried very hard to avoid sounding “preachy.” They failed. People watch television to be talked to, not at. Nobody tunes to Fox News, CNN or MSNBC for two solid minutes of one-sided pontification – at least not to Fox or CNN.
  • Kumbaya as a strategy – all that talk reminiscent of “Come on, people, let’s smile on your brother/Everybody get together and love one another right now” went out with Jefferson Airplane.
  • “I am not a crook.” Using good deeds to distract attention from possible bad deeds doesn’t make the accusations of bad deeds go away. That’s what Richard Nixon tried in the aftermath of Watergate, and we all know how well that worked.
  • “But Mom, all the other kids do it.” The fact that other foods and drinks have calories doesn’t mean that Coke Classic doesn’t. If Cokes with sugar have one-ninth the calories people believe, a fleeting shot of the calorie count on the can and an “everybody does it” argument won’t persuade them otherwise.

Perception trumps reality

Coke’s own research showed that people have deeply held perceptions about how fattening their sodas are. Those perceptions may be contrary to fact, but to consumers perceptions are facts and as such can be next to impossible to change.

As we noted here back in 2011, acting as if misperceptions were the audience’s fault and using advertising to correct them with education can be an expensive exercise in futility.

“Re-educating masses of people,” we said, “is a major expense and a major effort (just ask the Red Guard, who tried it in the People’s Republic of China) that no…advertiser can either afford or accomplish.”

Looks like Coca-Cola may be about to learn that lesson.

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