The New Coca-Cola Ads: A Strategic Retreat by Big Soda and a New Challenge for Public Health Advocates
Last week, Coca-Cola launched a new campaign with the release of a two-minute television ad that addresses the link between their products and the health of their customers. Airing during prime-time news shows, the ad targets policymakers and emphasizes Coca-Cola’s role as a responsible corporate citizen genuinely concerned about the nation’s health.
The new campaign can be seen as a marker of health advocates’ success in shifting the conversation around sugar-sweetened beverages from one focused on individual responsibility to one focused on the critical need for policy and environmental change solutions. As Harold Goldstein, Executive Director of California Center for Public Health Advocacy stated in a New York Times article, “they are clearly running scared and for good reason.” By going on the offensive with its own ad, Coke is attempting to claim the moral high ground and reset the terms of the discussion by framing the issue in ways that discourage policy and regulatory change.
What does the ad mean for advocates working to limit the harmful impact of sugar-sweetened beverage marketing? The company’s new campaign is a strategic move intended to quell our current momentum—and advocates can’t let Coke prevail.
Below, we break down three of the major messages contained in Coke’s new ads, and offer analysis and framing guidance for advocates to help keep the focus on policy change solutions. As Coca-Cola rolls out its new campaign, and continues to lobby hard against evidence-based policy solutions, advocates can use the media to keep the pressure on and ensure their communities’ voices are heard.
Coke 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. And as the nation’s leading beverage company, we can play an important role.”
The biggest players in the beverage industry often state that—when it comes to health—they are an important part of the solution. As evidenced by the quote above, Coke’s new ad continues to place that message front and center. But while beverage companies make small concessions on the front end, they’re working overtime behind the scenes to derail policy and community change efforts. In recent months, the industry poured $3.7 million into the fight to defeat soda tax measures in California cities Richmond and El Monte. A legal challenge to New York City’s soda size cap also paints a clear picture of the industry’s true intentions.
If the beverage industry truly wants to be part of the solution, they’ll stop putting up barriers to health efforts. If they care about the health of kids and families, and not just their bottom line, they will support science-based guidelines on marketing to kids, and they’ll let local communities decide what kinds of foods and beverages should be available and marketed. For those companies who really do want to be part of the solution, it's time to walk the talk.
Coke Says: “But beating obesity will take action by all of us, based on one simple common-sense fact: 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 industry’s emphasis on calorie balance and physical fitness both reinforce the frame that healthy eating is all about personal responsibility. Describing the problem of obesity and related chronic diseases as one shaped by personal choices allows food and beverage companies to put forward solutions focused on the individual. But this frame ignores that for large beverage companies, the success of their business model has hinged on selling an ever-growing amount of sugar-sweetened beverages. In fact, these beverages accounted for 43% of the increase in daily calories consumed between 1977 and 2001, and continue to be the largest source of added sugar in the average American’s diet.
For advocates, framing the issue in a way that demands policy and environmental change means telling the story of how the places in which we live, learn, work and play either do or don’t support health and equity. After all, we already live in a society where our food choices are shaped and constrained by policies, regulations, and practices. The real issue is about who gets to shape our food environment – our families and communities, or an industry whose profits come at the expense of the public’s health?
Coke Says: “For elementary, middle and high schools, our industry has voluntarily changed its offerings to primarily waters, juices, and low- and no-calorie options. This has helped reduce the calories from our industry’s beverages in those schools by 90% since 2004.”
While Coca-Cola trumpets its decision to remove sugary drinks from school vending machines and cafeterias, the beverage industry as whole continues to bombard our kids with sugar-sweetened beverage marketing. Companies spent $948 million advertising sugar-sweetened drinks to children in 2010. In California, 62% of adolescents ages 12-17 and 41% of children ages 2-11 drink at least one soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage every day.
What’s more, mounting evidence points to disproportionate marketing to children of color. In 2010, Hispanic teens saw 99 percent more ads for sugar-sweetened beverages than white children. Black children and teens saw 80 to 90 percent more ads than white children. In fact, just as Coke’s new ads were making news, researchers at the University of Illinois released a study showing that while all kids are getting too many calories from sugar-sweetened beverages, low-income and black children are consuming far more of these unhealthy drinks.
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