Tell Me About The Aspartame, Mommy!
No? I haven’t, either.
didn’t stop the Coca-Cola Company from launching a mysterious one-page newspaper ad providing
information about the safety of the fake sweetener last week. Everything about it is awkward, starting with the photo of a mother and daughter gathering together in the classic “tell me about
female freshness” formation. (What’s up with that photoshop job on the Diet Coke-imbibing mother’s chest?)
Then there’s the non-headline headline, distinguished for its advanced levels of blandness: "Quality Products You Can Always Feel Good About." Perhaps it’s a sophisticated attempt to make the ad seem as artificial as the subject matter it defends.
The copy reads: "Time and again, these low- and no-calorie sweeteners have shown to be safe, high-quality alternatives to sugar. It adds, "In fact, the safety of aspartame is supported by more than 200 studies over the last 40 years.”
Okay, am I missing something, or has anyone been questioning the safety of aspartame lately?? The last time I
remember a controversy was in the late 1990s (1996, actually) with the “60 Minutes” story that suggested that ingestion of the aspartame could result in brain lesions. But that was almost
20 years ago. Why would the Atlanta-based soft drink company float this little trial balloon now?
The ad itself ran in USA Today in Atlanta and the Atlanta Journal Constitution last week and will run in the Chicago Tribune this week. Though only two cities were targeted. it’s safe to say the tiny media outlay was dwarfed by the millions of dollars in free media that the ad received. Was that part of the plan?
Is the company policing itself proactively, releasing an ad that perhaps turns legal cartwheels (but doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense otherwise) because something is about to break about aspartame? Earlier this month, the soft drink giant distributed a fact sheet on aspartame to its bottlers, noting that the sweetener is also used in thousands of products including gum, pudding and desserts. (“It’s not our fault! They do it too! And they’re worse than we are!” it did not say.) The "Skinny on Aspartame" document is also posted on the Web site of the "Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness,” Coke’s educational arm, and an online site for “health professionals."
By now, with increasingly public discussion of obesity and the evils of sugar, everyone knows that old-fashioned carbonated soda sales are down. But the news here is that diet soda consumption dipped even more; Diet Coke sales were down 3% last year, while sales for the signature sauce were down 1%.
Obviously, a giant public global company has to worry mostly about the health of its bottom line. To its credit, Coke appears to be trying to be a good corporate citizen too.
But tackling obesity is a very tough strategy for the soft drink maker to pursue. This became clear after the launch last January of the first part of the “Coming Together” campaign.
The peppier of the two commercials showed how a drinker could just work off the “140 fun calories” in a can of Coke. At the time, I wrote that it “shows that working your can off hardly means working your can off.” The exertion includes “25 minutes of letting your dog be your GPS” (if you are an adorable, skinny, Zooey Deschanel type, laughing madly as your dog pulls you along the perfect metropolitan walkway.) Then it’s just “75 seconds of LOL” plus “one victory dance at a bowling alley.”
At the time, I glazed over every part except the LOLling and the victory dance. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. The ad was subsequently banned in the U.K. for being misleading. Regulators charged that it wasn’t clear that you had to add up all of those activities to work off the “fun” calories.
Word is that Coke is testing a natural, more organic sweetener in Argentina. (And it owns Truvia.) Perhaps that’s the answer. So for now, we’re left with a mystery wrapped in an enigma and a vegetable sandwich. The Diet Coke on the side is optional. But thanks for the advice, Mom.