Coca Cola’s Obesity Ad Says You’re Stupid

In the same week that we learn of the UK’s bold new restrictions on weight loss advertising, the world’s most valuable brand debuts a plan of attack. Like tobacco in the 1960s, sweetened beverages are coming under fire so Coca Cola is launching a volley to reposition its brand in the face of intensifying criticism and gradually shifting social trends.

What do you do when your global empire is built on a product that’s being vilified as one of the chief causes of a health crisis? When you’re Coca Cola, you feel lucky to have other products you can talk about. And that’s just what the beverage behemoth is doing with a new two-minute commercial that uses a documentary style to blame America for its obesity problem and highlight Coke’s low calorie and no calorie products.

I’m reminded of the urban legend that claims KFC changed its named from “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in an effort to divert attention away from the fact that its primary product is fried. But no. The state of Kentucky enacted a law that regulated use of the state’s name for commercial purposes. But in this case, Coca Cola IS trying to divert your attention and point out everything they’ve done to help you forget that they continue to build shareholder value with what’s come to be known by the misnomer “sugary drinks.”

Coke’s mini infomercial shines the spotlight on all the things they’d like you to believe they are doing as responsible corporate citizens but face it. Coca Cola is as interested in fighting obesity as NBC wants to “change lives” with “Biggest Loser.” Coca Cola will do whatever it takes to maintain and grow market share and by their standards, they’re in a bit of trouble. Coke is still king but the beverage market has become crowded with tough contenders including sports beverages and energy drinks. And, interestingly enough, people HAVE been gradually shifting away from sweet soda to drinks they perceive as a better nutritional choice. Consumption of sweetened carbonated beverages has actually been steadily declining since the late 90s and Coke saw its market share go flat in 2012. With an eye on these shifting trends, Coke has been expanding its portfolio into waters, sports beverages, juices, and dairy products and has recently acquired a protein drink brand.

Coca Cola won’t be changing its name to “CC Drinks” and Coke will remain its #1 best selling Real Thing through the foreseeable future but I see some ulterior tactics through the gauzy veil of ingratiating PR. First of all, Coke’s doing extremely well these days. Its stock price has doubled since early 2009 and split in August 2012. All people everywhere love sweet drinks and Coke’s greatest expansion may be into countries where developing economies mean a bottle of that great American soft drink can become a daily habit for millions.

Coke’s obesity ad has garnered an avalanche of media attention but I think it’s Coke’s way of scolding all of us. The message I take from the commercial is that Coke thinks it’s our responsibility to make “informed decisions” and we’ve been ignorant slugs. Coke makes it clear they think it’s been our fault for not realizing that “all calories count.” A condescending female voiceover pedantically informs us “if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.” Cut to a scene of a thin woman running which is what Coke thinks we should have all been doing. If we hadn’t been so lazy, we could have been drinking Coke and then running down city streets to burn it off.

Watch carefully and you’ll see that the commercial puts a focus on Coke’s philanthropic investment in playgrounds, parks, and fitness programs. I’m aware of a $3MM program Coke has funded here in Chicago for the Parks District. When you’re out running around, everybody likes having a big cooler of frosty beverages nearby, right? Something healthy like Powerade.

I’d like to know who coined this awful phrase “sugary drinks.” It may have been an operative from the National Corn Growers Association. Besides being grammatically awkward (do you like chocolatey bars?), it’s a diversionary expression in itself. In the United States, Coca Cola is not sweetened with sugar. It is basically a mixture of water and high fructose corn syrup. But not that anybody is reminded. Using Mayor Bloomberg’s war on large sodas as a rallying point, it’s been easy to make “sugary drinks” the scapegoat for America’s weight problem. The reality is we have a food problem. Corn is in everything we eat and in every sweetened drink. The American industrial food complex, built on a foundation of corn, feeds our nation the most obesogenic diet in the world.

The food processors’s answer to the obesity problem has been to create more processed food products and say they’re “healthy.” As Coca Cola claims to be responding to consumer demand by expanding its beverage lines, we can be reminded that it really is about choice. We’ve always able to get our vitamins from the produce department instead of flavored waters. The commercials and the “healthy” food products aren’t going to stop coming at us. But we can stop paying attention to them.

Post Script: Here’s a link to an interesting follow up article from the Huffington Post

Coca Cola commercial reactions & video