What the Soft-Drink Industry Can Learn From Beer

Coca-Cola's 'Calories In, Calories Out' Ad Gets Ahead of the Curve Just as A-B's 'Drink Responsibly' Ads Did

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As they climbed back from Prohibition, booze marketers in the 1930s served up responsibility ads to shield a product some still considered sinful. "We Who Make Whiskey Say: Drink Moderately" consumers were told, according to accounts of the ads by the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.

Eight decades later, it's the soda inddustry under fire, blamed for the nation's obesity epidemic. While a pop prohibition isn't at hand, soda marketers can learn from their booze-selling brethren in combating their fiercest critics.

Heineken's 'Let a stranger drive you home' ad
Heineken's 'Let a stranger drive you home' ad

When advocates called for an alcohol ad ban decades ago, former Anheuser-Busch Chairman August Busch III "deftly handled the criticism from [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] by throwing a bunch of money behind the effort to curtail drunk driving," according to the book "Dethroning the King." And since A-B first put the "Know When to Say When" campaign on network TV in 1985, it has poured more than $930 million into responsibility campaigns. Last year, it launched NationOfResponsibleDrinkers.com, where more than 20,000 adults have taken a pledge "to drink responsibly."

Though the American Beverage Association has run ads with the tagline, "More choices. Fewer calories," having the nation's biggest beverage company join the conversation turned heads. Coca-Cola debuted TV ads last week touting a calories in, calories out message, as well as its record of marketing low- and no-calorie beverage options.

"The beer industry urges consumers to drink responsibly, as too much alcohol isn't healthy," said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. "Similarly, too many calories, with a sedentary lifestyle, isn't healthy, and I think Coke is now starting to make that point in their ads, as has the industry."

Of course, the alcohol industry is regulated, and the soda industry is not. However, Coke's campaign comes as pressure on the industry ramps up. "I think they're imagining "what if,'" said Grace Leong, managing partner at Hunter Public Relations.

While critics pummeled the ads as misleading, consumers seem to have embraced them. According to AceMetrix, the "Coming Together" ad has been among the top five most-effective spots in the past 90 days, in addition to being 15% more effective than the average corporate branding ad and 24% more effective than the average soda ad.

The lesson for soda: Don't be defiant. "Be in the game from the beginning," said Dan Tearno, former chief corporate relations officer at Heineken USA. "If you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu."

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