Coca-Cola ad campaign draws criticism from health officials

“No good deed goes unpunished” sounds easy enough to apply to any good-natured but ill-fated action destined for an unfortunate outcome. But the saying may gain a new sense of meaning when applied to a particular subject. Coca-Cola’s new anti-obesity advertising campaign appears altruistic but it has drawn heavy criticism from multiple health officials as many question how good-natured Coke’s motives behind the campaign really are.

“It’s an image-building response to recent efforts against what the beverage company stands for,” said Shahbaz Gill, adjunct assistant professor in Business Administration. “Coca-Cola is trying to manage the damage that’s being done to their market.”

In the new advertisement, Coca-Cola promotes their own health endeavors that they say will play an important role in fighting obesity. Their efforts include 180 different low and no-calorie drink choices and smaller-portioned sizes, which Coca-Cola plans to supply 90 percent of the country with by the end of this year. 

Initiatives of the company were also mentioned, such as removing full-calorie drinks from elementary and middle schools and displaying nutritional information on the front of their products.

Gill said the main push for Coke’s anti-obesity promotion comes from New York City’s ban on soda beverage containers larger than 16 ounces. This notion, now present in additional city and state governments, reveals stricter control and growing public concern over soda products, he said.

“Their market share is dropping gradually and the standards that they impose on themselves are being questioned,” Gill said. “Corporate organizations within this industry are self-regulated ... in New York, the government intervened ... (These corporations) are applying the same concepts to themselves.”

Brittany Duff, assistant professor of advertising, also connected Coke’s anti-obesity advertisement and promotions to the New York soda serving restriction. Duff also sees the campaign as a way for Coca-Cola to avoid the government regulation cigarette companies have faced over time, which included tax increases and limitations in advertising.

“I think (Coke’s) argument there is, ‘we’re making it very easy for someone to know what they’re consuming,’” Duff said. “It’s not costing the government millions of dollars to put the message out there since Coca-Cola is paying for it ... they’re not trying to hide things. They’re maybe trying to be proactive by getting ahead of that (government intervention).”

Duff later added that it is easy to consider why many have evaluated Coca-Cola’s campaign as disingenuous.

“Companies invite a kind of cynicism when they start to spend millions of dollars telling people all the good that they’re doing,” Duff said. “The idea that they just want it from the bottom of their hearts can pass when they market themselves.”

Gill applied an analogy to the campaign of Coke bruising someone then avoiding punishment by applying ointment. He said that companies in the past have used similar approaches of a technique titled societal marketing to maintain profits and satisfy their consumer base.

“As obesity levels rise, eyes will turn toward these industries, and Coke claims other cultural issues,” Gill said. “They need to establish loyalty and so they support and invest in causes so people will say, ‘Oh, this is a wonderful company.’ It’s a two-way effect: they are building their image as well as increasing sales.”

This method and other corporate strategies that purport social good are not without past controversies. Much of the debate around Coke’s anti-obesity campaign centers on its promotion of calorie value.

The prominent commercial, titled Coming Together, claims that “All calories count, no matter where they come from.” But nutritional experts argue that stance misses out on key health facts.

“It’s misleading because certain foods, like fruits and vegetables, contain essential vitamins and minerals in addition to calories,” said L. Karina Diaz Rios, graduate assistant in nutrition. “A calorie from soda lacks nutritional essentials and with a higher risk of weight gain.”

Duff said that some of the most successful campaigns in food industries are ones that are unapologetic toward presenting their product line. Around the time of McDonald’s super size controversy, Burger King revealed the “Meat’normous” omelet sandwich that clocked in at 45 grams of fat. Duff said these campaigns make sense because they focus on a company’s target audience.

Duff, whose professional background in advertising features past work with Burger King and Noodles & Co., says that certain health promotions for products are ineffective so far.

“I haven’t seen any evidence in food and beverage consumption caused from advertisements like calories displayed on the front of products,” Duff said. “In New York City, they mandate fast food to display health numbers, but there hasn’t been any difference in how much people ordered in terms of calorie numbers.”

It remains to be seen how Coke will play the campaign out in the future. Coca-Cola did not reveal anti-obesity advertisements during the Super Bowl, focusing instead on a multimedia plan that had already garnered its own controversy as well.

Depending on students’ point of view toward Coca-Cola’s anti-obesity campaign and other endeavors, the old good deed saying may have become even more ironic.

Adlai can be reached at aesteve2@dailyillini.com