Behind Coca-Cola’s New Anti-Obesity Campaign

Coca-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 and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

12 responses

  1. It is not up to a company to keep me fit and trim. IF I choose to drink wheat grass or eat fries covered with gravy and wash it down with a cold Coke, it is my choice. I can make ‘healthy’ choices or not so healthy choices. my choice. As long as there is no poison in the food supply, and I’m not talking about oils or some other ingredient, but actual poisons like the ChiComs did with dog food a few years ago.

  2. bloomberg is a genius to stop the size of soft drinks in new york. Now, people can order 2 of the smaller drinks and there will be twice as many natural resources consumed to make more cups/bottles, there will be twice as much litter on the streets or in the land fills. good job nanny in chief.

    1. On this matter Bloomberg is way ahead of you. Studies show that when you reduce portion and packaging size people eat and drink less. In other words this move forces people to ask themselves: “Do I really need all that”. And many answer themselves with a no, so they consume less sugar.

      I’m not always a fan of Bloomberg but unlike most ignorant politicans eg Giuliani, he doesnt operate on knee-jerk moves – he works off of data and logic. This move is well supported by the relevant data – and it works.

      Too many people have their heads gassed up by soda companies’ propaganda. Sugar drinks like Coke etc are NOT something you should be guzzling 32oz of on a daily basis: they are supposed to be an occasional TREAT. Anything more than that and you are just abusing your body. That’s the bottom line. And anyone with even a remote clue about nutrition knows that. Why you let companies tell you lies just so they can make more profit, I dont know.

      1. I can only emphatically disagree.

        Anytime you let a bureaucrat have power to dictate how to live
        your life, consume a portion of your freedom through law, and chain you to
        their ideals while compromising your ability to freely choose you have become a victim to tyranny no matter how slight the circumstance.

        What Bloomburg has done has victimized the citizenry of New York, and undermined free markets all in the name of ‘good health.’
        If one does not want to put down the fork or is too gluttonous to say no to syrup
        drinks, than that is the choice of the individual, not the responsibility of government.

        For those that feel that this is over the top, start paying attention to other areas in your life where politicians are slowly chipping away your freedoms in the name of ‘what is best for you.’

        The government is not your parent nor are you its child.

        You are your own person free to make decisions as you see fit, that is why this country is so great. This is why everyone must be ever vigilant to push out lawmakers that dissolve your freedom to make personal decision.

        1. That is ideological claptrap, no better than the Taliban’s holiding to 7nth century writings.

          The market has clearly broken down. Diabetes has exploded in the US and other developed countries, precisely because food and beverage companies are marketing massive amounts of sugar (crazy amounts that should be a sunday treat at best in the old days) as everyday casual food. Its irresponsible and if these companies refuse to pull themselves together and restrain it, then they need to be restrained. There is a crisis out there.

          That’s the bottom line.

          And frankly national politicans should be on this case as well. Its shameful that they leave this to local politicians.

  3. Coca-Cola is in business to make money – that’s what everybody who buys their stocks expects. With all of the health-related information at our fingertips (at every checkout stand – every time we turn on a computer – etc.) we all know when we are making healthy choices – and when we aren’t. We all need to take care of ourselves – not expect somebody to run up and pull the pacifiers out of our mouths.

    1. Teta – I believe this story is less about the responsibility of the company vs. the responsibility of the customer and more about a company (Coke), which claims to take some responsibility on an issue but doesn’t really seem to be doing it.

      1. Indeed – the comments from “Teta Brown” are hilariously outdated. More so on this website dedicated to reporting news about the triple bottom line: people, planet and profits. All that old school ideological pap about “profit-only” is grossly outdated and discredited.

  4. If Coke wants to make money by selling sugared and non sugared drinks, let them. Consumers have choices. The don’t always make choices good for their bodies. However, if they ever return to a 6oz glass bottle of Coke (made with the recipe from the 1960s), they’ll have my money too.

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