Coke global marketing campaign links its unhealthy beverages with healthy living

Behind Coke’s international marketing campaign to insinuate that the beverages it sells are part of a healthy lifestyle lurks the hidden message that Coke doesn’t care what you drink—as long as it’s a Coke product.

That’s not how the company puts it. What Coke says, in a full-page ad in many national (and probably international) print media yesterday, was “At Coca-Cola we believe active lifestyles lead to happier lives. That’s why we are committed to awareness around choice and movement, to help people make the most informed decisions for themselves and their families.”

Now let’s take all the squeamishness out of this soggy statement; change into explicit language the indirect references to the now worldwide epidemic of obesity and to the myth that exercise is a magic elixir; and dismantle the buzz words like “awareness” and “informed decisions.”  In other words, let’s translate the message directly into common sense English. Keep in mind that the following is my rough translation of what Coke is saying: “We know that many of our products contribute to obesity, so we offer other products. We’re putting some of the enormous profit we’re making into exercise programs that are linked with our brand names in hopes that people will think that because they are exercising more they don’t have to cut down on calories to lose weight.  The important thing is that no matter what people drink that they buy a Coke product.”

(I hate using the word product to apply to food because the word “product” suggests unnatural processing, but in Coke’s case it mostly makes sense.)

Instead of its usual collage of happy people drinking Coke, the print ad is a red background with the outline of an original Coca-Cola bottle and the text reversed out in white. The print ad may represent a landmark in advertising because it’s the first time (or the first time I have seen) that a Coke or Pepsi ad is devoid of photographs of happy people. Of course the website to which the full-page ads send viewers,, more than makes up for the lack of smiling faces and Coke-filled bellies in the print ad.

After the code-phrase encrusted first paragraph of the ad, Coke lays out its four commitments:

  1. Sell “low- or no-calorie beverage options” in every market.
  2. Support physical activity programs, again in every market
  3. Label its products with nutritional information.
  4. Not advertise to children under 12.

There is something deceptive about all four of these commitments:

1. The commitment to sell “low- or no-calorie” beverage options (the basic idea that we can drink what we want as long as it’s a Coke product) assumes that these “low or no” drinks are healthy.  In fact, studies have shown that some types of artificial sweeteners may cause cancer and that drinks with artificial sweeteners give people a greater appetite and so contribute to increased calorie intact and therefore to weight gain and obesity. Coke also sells a line of energy drinks, which studies are now showing are bad for you. Coke also sells juice products loaded with either sugar or artificial sweeteners. That leaves us with Coke’s 100% real juice and water offerings. The problem with the juices is that they are a calorie-rich substitute for fruit; it is healthier to eat an orange than to drink the equivalent amount of orange juice.  The only truly healthy product Coke sells is Dasani water, which Coke has admitted is nothing but tap water.  Instead of dividing its product line into calorie and low/no-calories, Coke could divide it into products that are unhealthy and products that are healthy, but substitutes for food/drink that would be healthier or less expensive.

2. Coke’s support of physical activity programs across the globe is merely a form of marketing. They brand all the fitness programs they sponsor with their name and therefore benefit from the perceived enhancement of their brand through its association with these programs. Coke is then able to advertise its commitment to physical exercise which suggests a commitment to good health; and advertise it they do—on TV, in print, on the Internet and through elaborate social media campaigns.  Finally, the support of physical activities (combined with similar moves by makers of other unhealthy comestibles) contributes to the myth that increasing physical activity is equal to good nutrition and reduced calories when trying to lose weight.

3. Coke provides on its labels only the information required by government regulation.

4. Coke may not place ads on “SpongeBob Squarepants” or whatever Princess tripe Disney is currently purveying, but children also watch Superbowls, basketball playoffs and other sporting events.  Coke’s responsible marketing commitment evidently doesn’t extend to sports.

In other words, these commitments to social responsibility merely repackage Coke’s marketing, advertising and product development strategies in terms that try to make it seem as if Coke actually does care about the communities it serves.  The question is, is it fooling anyone?

Let’s end this screed against Coke’s deceptive new social responsibility marketing campaign by returning to the first words of the first paragraph of the all-words full-page ad: “At Coca-Cola we believe active lifestyles lead to happier lives.” Happiness, that’s what Coke is selling. Like all the hawkers of products that we really don’t need or which are not good for us, besides the product the company is also always selling the idea that happiness is achieved through buying something.

Consumerism: It’s the real magic elixir that cures all ills.


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