Commentary

Tell Me About The Aspartame, Mommy!

Ever have one of those days when you just want to settle in with your vegetable sandwich, snuggle up to your Mom, and rap about aspartame?

No? I haven’t, either.

But that 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 JournalConstitution 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.

10 comments about "Tell Me About The Aspartame, Mommy!".
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  1. Feminista Fan from The Past, Present and Future, August 19, 2013 at 4:38 p.m.

    in addition to being the most confusing "informational" ad, it's also the ugliest. If they were trying to make a case for using a real ad agency, models and stylists, they nailed it!

  2. Hedda Schupak from Hedda Schupak, August 19, 2013 at 4:52 p.m.

    Don't be surprised if something very nasty about aspartame blows open very soon. Despite repeated claims and counter-claims of its toxicity, there's really no other sound reason for this campaign. If Coca-Cola really wanted to be a good corporate citizen about obesity, they'd do more of the exercise spots you mention, or focus on portion control with a message like "Drink Coke because it's better-tasting than any other soda, but drink all soda in moderation."

  3. Jonathan McEwan from MediaPost, August 19, 2013 at 5:39 p.m.

    I think something's up. Get ready. That ad is very very suspicious looking. One step away from Don Draper's smoke Lucky's! They're toasted!

  4. Carol Gray from WriteAway, August 19, 2013 at 5:54 p.m.

    As usual, love Barbara Lippert's inside skinny.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 19, 2013 at 8:02 p.m.

    Booze is also pushed in media. They cannot say it is harmless, but a drink here or there won't hurt either. But that Sunday ad was weird. I didn't bother to analyze it, it was just weird. Who approved this ?

  6. David Carlick from Carlick, August 20, 2013 at 12:43 a.m.

    Aspartame will be shown to be a 'poison,' as sugar is also being defined by some scientists. Some studies show fake sugar creates the same insulin response as sugar, as well. All the soft drink ads claiming healthy attributes are themselves victims of confusion at corporate: how to justify a product that is really bad for the customer's health, somewhat (sugar or fake-sugar high) addictive, and hugely profitable, with huge legacy deals with bottlers thrown into the mix. I am reluctant to say we are better off with their heavily promoted processed tap water, despite the insane markup and dubious benefits of their plastic containers.

  7. Edmund Singleton from Winstion Communications, August 20, 2013 at 7:18 a.m.

    If you have to run an ad about product safety then something is wrong or soon will be?

  8. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, August 20, 2013 at 9:37 a.m.

    @ES-- yes, if the ad looks like it came out of the era of saccharine and cyclamates. very odd form!

  9. Leslie Singer from SingerSalt, August 20, 2013 at 10:35 a.m.

    Coke, along with others, will forever be trying to sell a wolf in sheep's clothing. The problem is the clothing is becoming sheerer and sheerer and people aren't buying it. They would be better off saying 'this might kill you but what a way to go' and stay niche to those that don't give a rats ass.
    Great article as always Barbara.

  10. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, August 20, 2013 at 5 p.m.

    This ad scares me more than any of the doubts I harbor about my excessive consumption of diet soda and the lack of any good that may come of this. What kind of ad could they then run if some really damning evidence about aspartame comes out? "You fucked up, You trusted us!" ??

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