It is embarrassing, and a bit perplexing -- and admittedly a bit satisfying -- to watch the Coca-Cola Co. twist in the wind.
How else would you describe the humiliation of running a TV commercial that begins like this:
“For over 125 years, we've been bringing people together. Today we'd like people to come together on something that concerns all of us: obesity. The long-term health of our families and the country is at stake. And as the nation's leading beverage company, we can play an important role."
Awk-ward, like the church pastor trying to explain the corpse in the trunk of his car. Sure enough, what follows is a bunch of double-talk of the usual kind. In fact, to be precise, it is double-talk that for decades was of the tobacco-industry kind.
“We've created smaller, portion-controlled sizes for our most popular drinks, and will have them in about 90 percent of the country by the end of this year…. We support programs like the Boys & Girls Club of America that enable young people to get active and start healthy habits early.”
Oh, please. Magicians and street grifters call that “misdirection.” The Atlanta headquarters has been madly issuing press releases now for years to make the case that they are part of the solution, but they are just making fools of themselves and all of us. Not because they are evil, but because the circumstances are as absurd as they are tragic.
Coca-Cola has spent 127 years and cultivated the world's most valuable trademark by selling sugar water, mainly to the satisfaction of everyone. The flagship brand is delicious and refreshing and inexpensive and fantastic with food. No -- spinach it ain't, but neither is it a narcotic. A few empty calories never hurt anyone.
The problem is that a lot of empty calories, especially in children, have resulted in a national epidemic. No need to break out the epidemiological data here. Let's just agree that the obesity and diabetes statistics are alarming. We can also agree that soft drinks are legal products, which consumed in moderation are essentially benign. Not only is a Coke not coke -- it is not tobacco, which is physically addictive and carcinogenic.
On the other hand, we are not speaking of moderation. We are speaking of immoderation.
We are speaking of Super Big Gulps and two-liter jugs. We are speaking of habituated users consuming insane quantities to wash down Big Macs and Doritos and Popeyes -- a direct result of socioeconomic shifts of the past 30 years in perfect synchrony with Coca-Cola marketing. Oh, yes, that -- the elephant in the room: the single-minded focus of every Coca-Cola manager to increase per capita consumption everywhere in the world. No brand manager is in the moderation business.
Here's an attaboy that has never been attaboyed: “Flat sales in North America this quarter, Tom? Good job! Let's see if we can make that curve slope downward in Q3, okay?”
And that's the Coca-Cola problem -- just as it is the McDonald's problem, the Frito-Lay problem and the Mars problem. Junk-food manufacturers are huge beneficiaries of the worst health choices of the society. They make the crap people want and sell as much of it as the market demands, and it is making the nation sick. While nobody should be blamed for merely offering junk, surely at some point brands must take responsibility for profiting -- knowingly and eagerly -- from dietary abuse.
Ah, this is where the agonizing spectacle comes in. It is nearly impossible for these companies to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders while also seriously addressing public-health concerns. Indeed, to have an impact, there are but two things Coca-Cola can undertake -- one more costly than the other. The first is to cease using high-fructose corn syrup in sugared drinks and return to the less abundant, more expensive cane sugar. The other is a full-throated labeling effort -- along cigarette-pack lines -- that says something like: This single can of Coke equals an hour on the StairMaster. Use your head. There's a water fountain over there.
Yeah. That's what economists call “suppressing demand.”
Yet, for the long-term health of the company, those are exactly what the company should do. It won't be long before governments begin regulating against HFCS as a dangerous food additive; there is a first-mover advantage for the company that makes the change first. And in the Relationship Era, maximum transparency pays. The days are over when you could win reputation points by running smarmy commercials and writing checks to the Boys and Girls Clubs. The public knows the difference between conscience and window dressing.
It also knows what a bind Coca-Cola is in. Till now, the anger is not especially widespread, and as New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg discovered by targeting Big Gulps, there is little sentiment for a nanny-state solution. But we live in a socially mediated world. If Big Cola continues to like Big Tobacco -- i.e., defensively and disingenuously -- the tide of public opinion will quickly turn. In fact, the online backlash to the Coke ad has already begun.
Phony declarations of “bringing people together” will be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but that will come in the form of a mob. P.R. palaver won't generate sympathy. Honesty will.
The time has come for radical truth. I'm pretty sure America would rather buy its sugar water from the brand that calls a thing by its name.