Coke Takes a Page From The Philip Morris Playbook

Docs smoke CamelsThe New York Times reported this week that Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets.

The practice has been roundly condemned from a public health point of view, as it should be. Coke’s premise is that calories don’t matter if you exercise. They’d have us believe that if you’re taking a brisk walk every day, feel free to drink gallons of sugary substances with abandon. You’ll be fine.

The Times reports that The Global Energy Balance Network, a new organization backed by an “unrestricted education gift” from Coca-Cola, was formed to “raise awareness about both sides of the energy balance equation.” Which sounds about as enlightened as teaching creationism in schools as an alternative to evolution.

“Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on,” the group’s vice president, Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist, says in a recent video announcing the new organization. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

Wrong, wrong wrong.  All the evidence points that way.

This is no different than how the tobacco companies maintained that there was no link between smoking and disease for so many years. Exercise, certainly beneficial in so many ways, can only do so much. It’s diet that matters when it comes to obesity.

The people at Coke, just like their tobacco industry counterparts before them, know this all too well. Boldly claiming that “science” dictates soda is harmless is highly cynical and insulting to the public’s intelligence.

Ethical arguments aside, that’s why this move is foolish from a marketing perspective.

Lying to your consumers is not a sound strategy. Especially when they know they are being lied to.  Nor is trying to be something you’re not advisiable from a marketing persepctive. It’s like Hot Pockets trying to appeal to foodies or Raisinets being sold “a better-for-you option” because they are high in antioxidants, “have “30% less fat than leading chocolate brands and provide ½ serving of real fruit in every ¼ cup.” (You can’t make that stuff up.)

The tobacco companies indulged in this denial and trickery and look how it worked out for them. Purveyors of alcoholic beverages were much smarter. They too came under attack for public health reasons as awareness of the dangers of alcoholism and drunk driving started to rise in the 1960’s.  But instead of making outrageous claims that it’s fine to drive while you’re wasted (“Road rage eliminated by mellow drivers after happy hour!”) makers of alcoholic beverages stepped up and told their consumers to “drink responsibly.”

While still unhealthy, addictive and dangerous when used to excess, alcoholic beverages are as much of an integral part of adult social lives as they have ever been. Ranging from the sophistication of fine wine and small batch bourbons to the down-to-earth enjoyment of cheap beer at a backyard barbecue, drinking is nearly universal accepted. And many brands at both ends of the sophistication spectrum are thought to be highly aspirational.

This is the right path for Coke. Enjoy our product in moderation. Rather than a 32 oz. Big Gulp, have a delicious, 6-ounce Coke with a meal or for a “quick pause that refreshes.”

Coke is swimming against the tide on this one. The sugared cola category isn’t going away anytime soon, but it will continue to decline before it finally flattens out on a considerably lower level. Of course, the volume implications of driving people from extremely large sizes to small or moderate sizes are enormous.  But it might be the right way to save the brand and the category in the long-term.

It is stunning to see how fortunes have reversed for Coke in my lifetime. Once revered, this iconic brand – along with its ally McDonald’s, a brand suffering for similar reasons – now has a huge target painted on its back for public health advocates. Coke and McDonald’s, fairly or not, epitomize all that’s wrong with the American diet. Large portions of empty calories that contribute to serious health problems – especially among minorities and poor people.

That’s got to be hard to accept, a real shock to the system. It’s the captain of the high school football team who has become the prematurely aging, balding, pudgy car wash manager. You think you’re still Peyton Manning but you’ve become Al Bundy.

Growth for these companies will have to come from other sources, other brands, other businesses. The decline in sales and stature for Coca-Cola and other sugared sodas has to be accepted. Saying there’s a place for Coke in a healthy diet is a stretch. But if you eat a healthy diet and your want to indulge every now and again – even daily if we’re talking about 6 or 10 ounces of Coke instead of the “Super Sizes” you can pour yourself at 7-Eleven or McDonalds – it won’t hurt.

Coke is delicious and refreshing. It truly is, and that’s the message that needs to be hammered home. Enjoy it, but not too much. Try to fool the public with outrageous propaganda and that message – and all else – will be lost.

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