Coke goes on the defensive

The cola's new ad campaign says we're in it together to fight obesity — as they keep peddling artificial sweeteners

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published January 16, 2013 8:55PM (EST)
  (Seth Perlman)
(Seth Perlman)

Of all the iconic, untouchable brands out there, Coke would surely be leader. It's like baseball and Snoopy and your grandma rolled into one. Sure, it deluges you every day with a steady stream of magazine and television ads and those promos before the movies, but it's the cola that always somehow acts like it doesn't have to. It's Coke, for God's sake, our great munificent giver of sugary elixir!

But the company, once unassailable, has come under attack. Mayor Mike Bloomberg's ban on beverage portions that are bigger than an average toddler — a late-night punch line just a few months ago – survived the heavy-handed folksy, WHADDAYAKIDDINGME? lobbying of the beverage industry and is about to take effect. Soda sales are sliding, and more and more schools are pushing to phase sugary drinks out of the cafeterias. The home carbonation biz, meanwhile, has been booming, helped along by consumer infatuation and the promise of less wasteful packaging. So you can see why Coke might be feeling a tad defensive. And to that end, the company that has generations been luring the thirsty with the promise of carefree refreshment is doing something unique: It's actually addressing obesity.

In a somber -- yet hopeful! -- new two-minute clip, Coke reminds us that "the nation's leading beverage company" has been part of our lives "for over 125 years," boasts that "we now offer 180 no and low-calorie choices" that have reduced the calories in many of their beverages, and informs us that they now offer reduced-portion sizes for their most popular drinks. As the music swells, Coke asserts its commitment to things like "innovative, all natural, no calorie sweeteners," and ends with the cheerful message that we're all going to work together on this one. A second new spot will also air on Wednesday's "American Idol" season premiere, in between clips of the judges sitting behind giant cups marked "Coca Cola." This, by the way, is from the same people who for years  were pushing the idea of Coke for breakfast. 

We need to get serious about how we eat and drink here in this country. We need to address the fact that if half of all Americans over the age of 2 – 2! -- are drinking sugary beverages each day, that's not good. And that's certainly a tough road to go down if the nation's biggest beverage company is looking the other way.

Yet the new campaign can't help reeking of corporate self-interest. Speaking to the New York Times, public health lawyer and Appetite for Profit blogger Michele R. Simon, notes, "This is not about changing the products but about confusing the public. They are downplaying the serious health effects of drinking too much soda and making it sound like balancing soda consumption with exercise is the only issue." And in USA Today, Susan Milligan takes issue with "the disingenuous ad campaign claiming Coke is good for you as long as you go for a jog later in the day."

Coke is not going to stop being Coke, which is fine because a Coke now and then is pure nectar. But it says a lot about how dumb the company must think we are that it applauds itself for reducing the overall calories in its beverages over the last 15 years while ignoring that obesity rates have simultaneously soared. In his book "Food Rules," Michael Pollan points out that "research suggests that switching to artificial sweeteners does not lead to weight loss."

So what if, instead of getting all innovative about making new magical sweeteners, the company was exploring ways to make their drinks less sweet overall? What if it developed new and simpler products instead of new and weirder ones? After all, how much vitamin water do we need, anyway? (Hint: none.) What if it explored bringing us back from our insatiable, high-fructose-fueled lust for overly cloying tastes? Because we're drowning in diet drinks and we're getting more obese all the time. Coke would still be a beverage behemoth. But after years of inundating us with fake tastes, it might at last show us what the real thing tastes like.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Advertising American Idol Branding Coke Michael Bloomberg Obesity Video