In the last several days, The Coca-Cola company launched an advertising campaign to raise awareness of the obesity problem we have in the U.S., to advocate for solutions to maintaining a healthy weight and to showcase all their product, program sponsorship and other programs aimed and addressing the issue from a corporate perspective.
The debate that has followed has been fierce. Some people have been on the side of consumer accountability for public health, like this one on foodbeat.com:
“Coca-cola never made a single person fat. Ever. Neither has McDonald’s or Twinkies or all the evil, processed food and corn syrup in the world. Food doesn’t make one fat. A lack of self-control does that. And banning or taxing food isn’t going to make people healthy, only a sincere individual choice and personal effort can do that.” Andrew23Boyle from The Washington Post
Others are more cynical and accusatory like this one from policymic.com
“What Coke is doing amounts to a really nice gesture and slick marketing. It’s great that they are making these changes, but their fundamental business model is still to maximize their profits by pushing sugary drinks on the American public. Their initiatives to combat obesity will continue to provoke cynicism until they reach the point when the majority of their products are low in calories, artificial sweeteners, and artificial colors. In short, if they really want to make a dent in the obesity epidemic, they need to do more than offer smaller portion sizes of the same products. They need to flip the orientation of their product structure so that it weighs far more heavily on the side of health.”
But I would propose a point of view that the raging dialogue that has been ignited is the optimal result, regardless of your opinion on the matter. The fact is, we do have a serious health problem in this country rooted in a consumer culture of excess and lack of attention paid to balance and health. America has been characterized around the world by our “bigger, better, faster, more” culture and our propensity for excess that has largely happened because, well, we have the means.
But who’s fault is that? Well, we can say that the corporations who manufacture unhealthy products and market them to maximize sales are negligent because they should be making and selling products that are healthier. That it’s the responsibility of the brands who created the mess to clean it up by cleaning up their act. We could also argue that people don’t have to buy these unhealthy products and that they should be responsible enough to consume unhealthy products in moderation. We certainly are not short on education on healthy eating in schools or marketing messaging for diets and healthy eating programs. And there is definitely a fitness culture that has been emerging. There is also the increasing trend in social food movements that are making healthier foods more affordable and accessible to the American public.
Certainly, the executives in charge at Coke knew that by launching a campaign like this they would be opening themselves up for ridicule. The fact of the matter is, they have been taking strides to empower customers to reach for healthier options by expanding their portfolio to include a wider variety of those. They have also done a good deal to eliminate sugary soft drinks from schools and have been sponsoring a number of public and social programs and initiatives that empower good habits like exercise. The other set of facts also point to their bottom line: which is that in order to sustain their business and continue to grow / make money, they need to follow the trends in American consumers’ mindset and be part of the solution or people will stop buying their products. The financial bottom line say’s it’s an imperative…but so is continuing to sell the stuff people love that might not be so healthy. As it turns out, these kinds of efforts to do better also benefit people and ultimately the planet. In the marketing world they call this the “triple bottom line”.
So, I suppose one question is, does it matter why they are doing it as long as they are doing it? And should they get credit for having the “cans” to not just follow a trend but lead the charge, knowing full well they are putting themselves in the line of fire? On the flip side, another question to ponder is, shouldn’t we as civil society be part of the solution? We are certainly part of the problem? Why should we place all the blame and responsibility for action on corporations when we are eagerly planting ourselves on the couch to eat wings and pizza on game-day but not getting out there and working off the calories when the final whistle blows – or before the coin toss?
I’m going to go ahead and give Coke points for putting themselves out there and making an effort to encourage their customers and consumers at large to get themselves out there as well.