Coca-Cola Works to Counter Childhood Obesity

Coca-Cola is reducing their advertising targeted at children in their attempt to counter obesity claims.
Coca-Cola is reducing their advertising targeted at children in their attempt to counter obesity claims.

By Lisa Marie Chirico

Maybe John Milton got it half right. During his fiery rant in “The Devil’s Advocate” he blames God for setting the rules in opposition after giving man instincts, but ultimately concludes that free will plays a big role in our lives. For companies who create products that are deemed unhealthy, such as soda and cigarettes, consumers’ free will takes center stage. Corporate profits have swelled over the years thanks in part to consumers saying “yes” when it may have been in their best interests to say “no.” So, when a public health crisis – such as obesity – occurs, who is to blame?

Although data shows that Americans are consuming fewer soft drinks and more bottled water, current research blames sugary, carbonated drinks for the rise in childhood and adult obesity in the United States. It appears that soft drink giant Coca-Cola (who received an overall scientific rating of 6.1 out of 10 from the GoodGuide) is taking the “best defense is a good offense” approach when it comes to thwarting claims and eliminating perceptions that their products contribute to obesity.

After launching an anti-obesity campaign earlier this year, the company recently rolled out a multi-faceted approach that emphasizes a reduction in advertising specifically targeting children. According to the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on this story, “reduction” is the key verb. Coke intends to aim their ads exclusively at viewers where the audience tuning in consists of no more than 35 percent children, and none to children under 12. Is Coke’s new strategy enough to actually decrease obesity rates for children who drink soda on a regular basis, or is it just a public relations move intended to bolster the company’s ongoing rebranding efforts?

It seems that Coke is concerned about obesity in everyone, not just children. Earlier this month, the Atlanta, Georgia-based company expressed their commitment to fight global obesity by announcing their Foundation’s pledge of $3.8 million in grants. According to the company’s website, the grants will support statewide initiatives, similar to others they’ve launched in Chicago and other cities around the U.S. to help get people active and enjoy a balanced lifestyle. Coke has also taken responsibility for the number of calories in their beverages by promising to offer their zero and low-calorie products in every market, in addition to supplying easy-to-read labeling that features both calorie and nutrition information.

So, just what’s in Coca-Cola anyway? According to Coke, their “secret formula” continues to remain a secret, but we know that some of the ingredients in the beverage include: high-fructose corn syrup; caramel coloring; vanilla; cinnamon; processed coca-leaf; kola nut; and caffeine. These ingredients may not seem particularly harmful, but collectively, appear to cause measurable harm. Half the U.S. population consumes sugary beverages (energy, sports drinks, soda) on any given day. In addition to obesity, sugary drinks are believed to increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and gout. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, one out of three children and two out of three adults in the U.S. are obese or overweight.

With estimates that show U.S. beverage companies spending billions on marketing soda directly to children, Coke’s new advertising approach for this market segment should prove to be interesting. Coke reported sales of $48 billion in 2012, and is considered the fifth most valuable global brand according to BrandZ’s 2013 Top 100 list.

Is Coke’s recent change of direction in their advertising to children, along with their various CSR initiatives, enough to change hearts and minds about how their products may affect public health? A decade from now, if the soda industry goes the way of big tobacco, what will be Coke’s ultimate brand legacy?

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Lisa Marie Chirico

Lisa is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She is a marketing communications specialist who is focused on pursuing green solutions for our planet’s longevity.

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