Open Unhappiness

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.

But how?

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 StairMasterUse 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.


16 comments about "Open Unhappiness".
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  1. Kevin Bullard from ILFUSION Creative, January 28, 2013 at 8:48 a.m.

    Bob, you KILLED it! So funny, so well written and SO dead on! (...there's a water fountain over there). Phony slop from a phony company. They cheap out at every turn and then avoid the obvious (HFCS vs real cane sugar like the GOOD Mexican cokes still have, etc...). Please keep 'em coming!

  2. Timothy Allen from Ephrata Review, January 28, 2013 at 9:22 a.m.

    Is this better than PepsiCo who has not even acknowledged that there might be a problem? And, Since when do companies assume a moral responsibility for the welfare of people who make money and make the personal choice where they spend it?

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 28, 2013 at 9:27 a.m.

    Coke owns and sells water, too.

  4. Robert Wheatley from Emergent -- The Healthy Living Agency, January 28, 2013 at 9:37 a.m.

    If anything, Bob, this is a brilliant example of solid strategic thinking in the age of transparency -- and a startling shift of consumer behavior towards healthy living. You must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Anyone in the beverage business should be working overtime to develop new additions to the product portfolio that answer of the interest in better nutritionals -- while applying equal effort to helping mitigate the obesity epidemic. Better judged by what you do than say, no?

  5. Zachary Cochran from CPXi, January 28, 2013 at 11:19 a.m.

    "This single can of Coke equals an hour on the StairMaster. Use your head. There's a water fountain over there." Love it. I do think greater honesty would help Coke in the long run as would a focus on what is truly in the interest of the consumer. Besides, objections like: "Coke should stop selling it's product" are as unhelpful as they are unlikely. P.S. I love coke with cane sugar in glass bottles way more than their normal stuff.

  6. Chuck Gafvert from Self employed, January 28, 2013 at 11:32 a.m.

    As I have said before, Beyoncé's sin isn't lip synching, but rather accepting $50 million to be "Global Ambassador" for Pepsi. Poor choice pushing the single biggest thing making kids obese and unhealthy -- sugary drinks. This includes sports, soda and fruit drinks. Think Viamin Water is healthy? Check out the sugar content.

  7. Henry Blaufox from Dragon360, January 28, 2013 at 11:42 a.m.

    Mr. Garfield,

    Is it the responsibility of these companies to police behavior, even among children? Isn't that what parents are supposed to do? As far as sugar and HFCS are possible culprits, keep in mind that Coca-Cola, Pepsico and the rest make zero or one calorie versions of their sodas. No one is preventing consumers from choosing those options.

    As for the fast food companies, let's keep in mind they do have lower calorie menu items as standard fare. Sales of these are nowhere close to the mainstay items, even though they are promoted frequently in all media. The chains also list calorie counts per item in locales where this is required.

    People make their own decisions. When they choose something other than high calorie foods, supply will be there to meet demand.

  8. Neal Burns from University of Texas at Austin, January 28, 2013 at 11:43 a.m.

    Perhaps one of the smartest and most effective column Bob has authored. The similitude of sugared soft drinks and cigarette packaging is straight on -- and both the immediate and long range impact of these terrible and easily acceptable beverages for kids impacts marginalized (often used code word for African American and Latino) children the most. The frequency of diabetes in this "market segment" and the long range cardiovascular and kidney related diseases is hideous and wondering where the funds for care will come from has no easy answer.

  9. Neal Burns from University of Texas at Austin, January 28, 2013 at 11:45 a.m.

    Sorry -- slipped out . Should be columns and accessible( not acceptable).

  10. Neal Burns from University of Texas at Austin, January 28, 2013 at 11:59 a.m.

    Blaufox's comment is true - in part. The child's growth, education, care, lunch, clothing and the rest is a parental or family responsibility. Yet, suggesting that the culture and technology of the time have no responsibility to the product's users and those directly or indirectly affected is - at best - political nonsense. Thus, auto manufacturers must provide good brakes and batteries, the pharma industry must meet the strictest of quality and safety, and those who make and sell certain weapons must be concerned with their appropriateness, their sale, distribution and control.

  11. Faye Oney from SDS, January 28, 2013 at 12:24 p.m.

    I had to laugh too, at Coca-Cola trying to fake concern about the obesity epidemic. However, people need to take responsibility for the food choices they make. Instead of blaming the corporations for trying to sell their products, let's place blame where it belongs - on irresponsible parents who can't say no to their kids. Or people who don't understand the meaning of moderation. The world is full of products that are bad for you. Have some self-control people!

  12. InterMarine Boats from InterMarine, Inc., January 28, 2013 at 2:06 p.m.

    I realize this is a thread on the media, BUT.... hello.... what about personal responsibility and accountability?? Is Coca Cola forcing you to drink the XXXXL Big Gulp?? I didn't think so. Use your head and drink the water.

    As for the corporation's attempt at seeming caring... I couldn't get past the first 15 seconds.

  13. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 28, 2013 at 6:43 p.m.

    Personal responsibility and accountability is fab. How many people took the free alligators from the banks and now "underwater" being bitten by the hands that fed them ? Just because one can't afford to add more calories to their daily intake is no reason to push them into it. Smell is our strongest scent. Walk into a bakery. Walk into a fast food joint. Do you smell salad or do you smell hamburgers and french fries ? Trance.

  14. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., January 28, 2013 at 7:17 p.m.

    Golly, I hate to bring science into this, but the Mayo Clinic says there is "insufficient evidence" to indicate cane sugar is any better for you than high fructose corn syrup. Why muddle this with pseudoscience? Corporations are by current definition amoral. As long as the shareholders prosper, they've done what they think they should. No matter what Coke says, it doesn't care about me, just my money. It's adult to recognize that and act accordingly – and to guide one's dependents accordingly.

  15. Edmund Singleton from Winstion Communications, January 29, 2013 at 4:39 a.m.

    Here is a product that can kill you but not too fast just enough for the company to make a profit before you go, a little like tobacco, hell a lot like tobacco...

  16. Tom O'Brien from NWPS, January 29, 2013 at 4:06 p.m.

    Like @Tim said above - switching out HFCS for Cane Sugar won't make any difference at all. They will deliver the exact same calories per serving.

    The real way out is to just start raising prices. The problem is that soft drinks (and all other junk food) are just too cheap!


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