The crusade to turn sugary soft drinks into this century’s tobacco as a public health issue didn’t start with New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, but he sure ran with the idea.
Now in the face of this crisis, Coca-Cola mounted an advertising/public relations campaign designed to show its products are not all that bad and are only one small piece of the obesity pie in this country.
When America’s most influential mayor, himself a billionaire, takes aim at your company, you’d better do something, and fast.
This crisis is not about one of your ingredients, it’s about your very core product. In public health circles, academic papers and newspaper opinion pages, experts say that banning large servings of soft drinks, or banning them altogether, would be as beneficial for human health as connecting tobacco to heart disease and cancer was in the 1960s.
“They [Coke] are clearly running scared and for good reason,” Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which led the charge to get sugary sodas out of schools, told The New York Times.
With the deep pockets Coke, one of America’s most trusted brands, has to spend on advertising, the two-minute ads running on cable news channels this week are a logical first step. But what’s most dramatic is that it’s the first public admission by a major soft drink company that the public health campaigns against those products are reaching the level of public discourse where advertising becomes a necessary rebuttal.
It’s a solid, measured response by Coke to the crisis it faces. It’s also, unfortunately for the ad agency and Coke, similar to the hoops Big Tobacco jumped through after the Surgeon General’s report in 1964 that started the 50-year downward spiral for cigarettes. Tobacco ads and products at the time tried to adapt to the grim facts and blunt the criticism. It offered new products, cleaner, cooler, less this, less that. But in the end, today, few people would argue that tobacco can kill you.
Is this the road Coke, Pepsi, 7Up, Doctor Pepper and all the others see looming ahead? Hard to say. For sure a soft drink or two now and then won’t add inches to your waist or lead to chronic diseases stemming from obesity like hypertension and diabetes.
But whether it’s Bloomberg, all the schools over the last decade that banned sugary drinks from cafeterias, or Michelle Obama’s healthy kids campaign, Coke and the others are taking notice. That they’re fighting back was inevitable and shows the battle’s escalation.
How Coke can end this crisis remains to be seen.
But it’s clear already that a great many new moms, parents of all stripes, regard soft drinks like their parents did tobacco.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.