Behind Coca-Cola’s New Anti-Obesity Campaign

ko_zeroCoca-Cola had a new message to share with the public last week – America, we have a problem. It’s called obesity. “The long-term health of our families and the country is at stake,” the company announced in a TV ad, which is part of its new anti-obesity campaign. Yet, there’s no need to panic – Coke is here to help!

With more than 180 low- and no-calorie drink choices, smaller portions for most of its most popular drinks, support of programs that get young people active and ongoing research on things like zero calorie, all-natural sweeteners, Coke suggests in the new ad that it takes obesity seriously. Nevertheless, Coke adds, this is not just up to the company – everyone needs to give a hand to beat obesity by considering a very simple “common sense” fact: “All calories count no matter where they come from, including Coca-Cola and everything else with calories. And if you drink and eat more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.”

This new campaign, entitled Coming Together is the first time Coke is launching a campaign focused on fighting obesity, which brings up the question – what happened here exactly? Did Coke decide it’s time to become part of the solution rather than remain part of the problem, or is this another greenwashing campaign aimed at selling more Coke?

Although this campaign might seem surprising, it doesn’t come out of the blue. In the last few years, Coke, alongside other soft drink producers, has been under a lot of pressure due to growing evidence showing the connection between soft drink consumption and obesity. We have witnessed more efforts of regulators to intervene, from New York Mayor Bloomberg’s successful effort to limit the portion size of soft drinks sold at restaurants and other public venues to unsuccessful attempts in other places to implement a soda tax. In addition, the public debate on this issue continues due to the efforts of organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest with smart campaigns like the Real Bears.

Coke and the soft drink industry had some standard answers they regularly use to reply to these allegations.

Coke’s new campaign has abandoned the argument that there is no evidence of the connection between drinking soft drinks and obesity, and is focusing on the other two arguments. First, they are subtly making the case that Coke is just one part of the problem, and second, that basically all calories are equal. The second argument seems to be the main thrust of the campaign, shifting the question from what goes into your body to an arithmetic problem – did you burn more calories than you took in?

You can see this numbers strategy in the second ad, where consumers are given ideas on how to work off 140 “happy calories” (number of calories in a 12 oz. coke). Apparently, it’s not that difficult and involves a combination of happy activities, like 25 minutes of letting your dog out, 10 minutes of dancing, some laughing (75 seconds) and so on. Finally, the ad shows us a picture of Coca-Cola Zero next to the text “Calories Optional,” just to remind customers that they can drink no-calorie Coke products responsibly even without any happy activities involved.

The problem with these messages is that not all calories are equal. As Prof. Ruth Faden of John Hopkins writes in The Atlantic, “Many foods and drinks contain calories but also nutritional value; these are the calories that fuel our daily lives. Added sugars like those in Coca-Cola, however, add calories but no nutrition–so-called “empty calories.” According to the Food and Drug Administration, ‘In some foods, like most candies and sodas, all the calories are empty calories.’” Therefore, she concludes, “Coca-Cola’s claim that ‘all calories count’ is extraordinarily misleading.”

Given Coke’s attempt to characterize its calories as equal to calories consumed from other foods or drinks, this campaign is simply a sophisticated marketing campaign, rather than a real effort by Coke to play a meaningful role in fighting obesity.

What Coke is doing here is nothing but a great rebranding work, trying to show how Coke can easily be part of a healthy lifestyle. Prof. Marion Nestle of NYU calls this “An astonishing act of chutzpah, explainable only as an act of desperation to do something about the company’s declining sales in the U.S.” I tend to agree with her – if Coke was really willing to become a positive force for change, it could have started by avoiding the marketing shticks on happy calories and starting a serious public discussion on how it can really help fight obesity.

Until it starts doing so, Coke is still part of the problem, not the solution.

[Image credit: The Coca Cola Company]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons the New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, the sharing economy and sustainable business models such as B Corporations. He is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.