Coke's Sugar Response: A Glass Half Full

The Campaign on Obesity Is a Bold Step, But It Feels Insincere

By Published on .

Coca-Cola has launched its response to consumer and regulator complaints that it unduly contributes to the nation's obesity epidemic. The campaign so far, titled "Coming Together," involves a two-minute commercial outlining its position, a shorter spot for consumers and a website linking visitors with its various philanthropic activities.

Coke deserves credit for making a start. But now the company needs to reconvene the brain trust that came up with the idea (and had the audacity to push it to fruition), and do it right.

The two-minute infomercial is filled with stock footage of racially diverse thin people doing those snippets of lifestyle things we see in commercials for insurance, razor blades and drugs for erectile dysfunction. Coke imagery is interspersed as the company ticks off the things it's doing to promote responsible consumption of its products. The punchline comes near the end: people need to manage their caloric intake, and if consumers "come together" with Coke in its campaign, the future is not only bright, but implicitly skinny. The shorter spot illustrates how easy (and fun!) it is to burn off the 140 calories in a can of Coke.

If Coke wanted to make its acknowledgment of the obesity issue seem insincere, it couldn't have done a better job.

Opponents were quick to challenge the feel-good video, noting that soda and other sugary drinks are the largest source of calories in the typical American diet, and those calories "trick" our digestive systems so we keep consuming them. Watching it, I couldn't help but think that if Coke's doing all these wonderful things to make America thinner -- smaller cans, calorie counts on the front labels, etc. -- isn't it explicitly telling us that it's not responsible for our fatness woes? The shorter spot seems to support this idea by showing us we can burn away Coke's calories by laughing uncontrollably and walking our dogs. So what sort of "conversation" do we have to come together upon?

Coke needs to revisit the message and its communications strategy.

First, the punchline should be at the front of every video the company produces, not at the end or absent altogether: Drink less soda. Consumers already are switching their drinking habits to more-healthful alternatives, with or without regulatory encouragement. The company needs to tell consumers that it's not a good idea to chug a gallon of Coke before taking a breath, and show images of those stomachs we bump into at Disneyland. Losing weight isn't happy or easy, which is why weight-loss clinics and diet makers will always be in business.

Instead, Coke should embrace and own the truths of its business, or be a victim of the reality it is trying to spin or ignore. This campaign should be to Coke what the Kindle is to Amazon, or iPad is to Apple. Don't be so smart and try to avoid insulting the 800-pound consumer in the room.

Second, the company needs to get off the idea that Coke is just another source of calories, like broccoli or rice cakes. It's not. Coke is tasty, refreshing and delivers a little jolt, all of which are wonderful things, but they're not nutrition. Coke is to our tastebuds what action films and pop music are to our minds: junk. Good ol' fashioned entertainment. And just as nobody would insist that every media experience have educational value, why should everything we drink or eat be good for us? It's not authentic for Coke to position itself as anything else than what it is (the commercial reminds me of those sugary cereals that used to claim they were part of "a balanced breakfast"). And stop being cute with the numbers, like touting a "portfolio of more than 650 products" in the longer spot, or making losing 140 calories seem like a vacation. My takeaway is that the ad is purposefully hiding something behind the math in either case.

Third, Coke should scrap the conversation nonsense of its web campaign and focus on substantive, detailed communication of its activities. The idea that it can or should own the issue of obesity in America is stupid. It's not Coke's problem, though well-intentioned advocates for healthful eating would be happy to make it so. By asking viewers of its video to "come together" -- again, the ending suggests the start or continuation of a conversation -- the company is volunteering to step up and say (or do) more. It should focus instead on providing more truthful, direct talk about how its consumers can best enjoy its products. The campaign should resemble an extended users manual and not one side of a PR debate that the company can never control or win.

My guess is that there are underlying operational truths that make this issue very dicey for Coke. Heavy drinkers are profitable consumers (no pun intended), and large servings at convenience stores and movie theaters mean more syrup sales. That's not the same as selling guns or cigarettes. And for every obese cola lover there are many hundreds or thousands of occasional and otherwise satisfied slender drinkers. The company has every right to collect money from any consumer who buys its products, but perhaps there is such a thing as too much of a good thing? Coke needs to face the components of its business that rely on heavy drinkers and either accept or change them. Maybe that's why its position on obesity seems disingenuous or incomplete.

At risk of too many intentional puns, I choose to see the company's efforts as a glass that's half full. If it has come this far, it can go further. The fact that Coke is talking about obesity is huge.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy, and co-author of "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.

Most Popular
In this article: