Coke And Football? Booze And Health? What Gives?

It has been a week of strange bedfellows. Coca-Cola has become the soft drinks partner of England's top football league -- and then Public Health England teamed up with the alcohol industry's advisory charity, Drinkaware, to suggest people have regular non-drinking days.

The latter kicked up a real storm, with resignations, assertions and counterarguments, all basically focused on a very interesting question: Should a brand or organisation promoting good health be associated with a part of the industry it is warning people against?

At least 40 experts are reported to have told the government such a link should not be entertained, while PHE says the alcohol industry is exactly the partner to have when speaking to drinkers about moderating their intake. 

The storm followed a similar row over the weekend when it emerged that the local authority in Birmingham is working on a plan to promote British American Tobacco's "vaping" devices as an alternative to smoking.

So we have health bodies working with the booze and the smoking industry. But this week, as previously mentioned, has been an odd one for strange bedfellows, particularly in sport.

Earlier this week, we had Coca-Cola signing a partnership deal with the Premier League that will involve activations across the U.K., including a tour of the Premier League trophy accompanied by a host of Coca-Cola brands. When its main product is so well-known, it is easy to forget Coke's other brands include Oasis, Schweppes, Fuze Tea, Fanta, Lilt and Sprite. So it's not just the dark fizzy stuff that will follow the trophy around the country.

In an interview with Jon Woods, Coke's UK boss, in Campaignit became very clear why Coca-Cola is so interested in football. Fizzy drinks packed with sugar are not usually the first beverage one would link with elite sport, but reading between the lines, that is the point. The company is very open about its best growth occurring in light- or zero-sugar variants.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that Coke will be pushing out the marketing message that having a Coke doesn't necessarily mean sipping a few tablespoons of the sugar at the same time. 

We'll have to see how heavily Coke promotes its lighter variants as it activates this new partnership from January. My guess is that it will be front and centre. 

We're not quite done with strange bedfellows, by the way. Those involved with grassroots football will know all about McDonald's. The fast-food chain has been involved in providing sponsorship and training at local level for several years now. In August, it made a pledge to give 500,000 young kids five million hours of "turn up and play" coaching across the UK, in partnership with the FA. 

There are two reactions to all of these developments and announcements. Moral outrage is one. What are fast food, fizzy drink, booze and cigarette companies doing anywhere near campaigns to promote healthier lifestyles? This is all just about brand image and covering up how they actually make their money. Another is, have these guys finally seen the light and decided to change tack and tap into a change in customer behaviour?

The latter is the interesting question. Are brands trying to kid us that they are more socially responsible and do less harm to our health than we may fear, or are they being led by consumers down a path they have to follow, or face becoming obsolete? Are consumers the victims in this, or they are in power, pushing brands toward healthier messaging and campaigns?

What do you think? It's an interesting one, isn't it, and the experts who advise the government are not sure which side of the argument to side with. 

For me, I think this is a case of consumer power. Full-sugar drinks are already giving way to more demand for low-energy equivalents, people are interested in cutting back their booze intake and they see "vaping" as an alternative to the harmful addiction of smoking. They also don't mind kids having the occasional fast-food treat, but only if they have burned off the calories to earn it. I have to admit that for me as a parent and grassroots coach, it's the McDonald's example I have the most difficulty accepting. 

But let's give these rather odd-looking brand partnerships time to see how they develop. Could a smoking company help people quit the habit -- and could booze makers convince us all to try a night or two away from the hard stuff? 

It's just possible that it could work. These brands are portrayed as steering the pubic. If I were to have to decide which side of the argument I sit on, however, I'd suggest the opposite.

The UK public is becoming better informed on health and diet, and that is impacting spending behaviour. These brands want to be on the right side of that argument, and I believe that's where these brand activations point, rather than a confidence trick to boost brand images. 

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