Coca-Cola, false health and wellness propaganda aimed at teens. Scientific study

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A scientific study published 12/18/19 in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reveals the Coca-Cola Company’s strategy to lure teens, children and their mothers. False health and wellness propaganda designed to minimize the perceived risks of consuming sugary and carbonated beverages. Shame!

Big food and junk food, the strategy of profit.

The study ‘Targeting Children and Their Mothers, Building Allies and Marginalising Opposition: An Analysis of Two Coca-Cola Public Relations Requests for Proposals‘ was conducted by researchers from the Global Obesity Centre, Deakin University (Australia) and the NGO US Right to Know (Oakland, California, USA).

Researchers have pointed out that the Coca-Cola Company’s strategies – like those of other Big Food giants – serve to promote interests related to the sale of highly profitable yet unhealthy foods and beverages. (2) Which are considered one of the main drivers of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases(Non-Communicable Diseases, NCDs). With epidemic incidence on the public health of citizens of the entire planet. (3)

‘Consolidating credibility in the area of health and wellness’

‘Increasing adolescents ‘ perception of health related to the Coca-Cola brand’, ‘Consolidating credibility in the health and wellness space‘. These were the ‘behind-the-scenes’ public relations goals, at the 2016 Rio Olympics as in the ‘Movement Is Happiness‘ campaign (2013-2014).

But the devil makes the pots – cans, in this case – and not the lids. In fact, the U.S. Right to Know association acquired the documents of the Corporation‘s lobbyists through a simple request for access to the public files where they had been recorded. And he analyzed them along with advertisements, marketing campaigns, PR agency jobs, press releases and their outcomes.

‘The documents show that Coca-Cola has tried to use public relations to manipulate teens into thinking that sugary soda is healthy, when in fact it increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and other diseases‘ (Gary Ruskin, co-author of the study and co-director of US Right to Know).

Target audience, teenagers and moms

The communication strategy analyzed in the study specifically aimed to reach ‘teens and moms‘ through ‘influencers’ (particularly on
social media
) and celebrities, as well as the ‘global media’. Therefore, social media influencers such as Jake Boys, (4) Radio Disney star Alli Simpson, and various athletes from the U.S. Olympic team were hired in Rio, among others.

The effectiveness of the ‘Rio campaign’ was measured through two KPIs(Key Performance Indicators):

outreach. 21 million adolescents were reached, with an 88% accuracy rate on the target age group of 13-20. Targets reached, in 90% of cases, on mobile phone platforms,


– interaction
. Adolescents’ interaction with the Corporation‘s brand, as measured by a series of indicators, increased by 7 points during the Olympic Games.

Marginalizing detractors

Coke – in the 11,754 pages of documents analyzed – devotes priority to taking the lead in the area of health and wellness (!) and ‘marginalizing detractors.’ To ‘build broad support across a range of categories, including consumers, women, civil servants and politicians, personalities and the media.’ And therefore:

solid relationships with journalists ‘who matter’, to be strengthened also through vis-à-vis meetings. To reaffirm Coke’s leading role and prevent negative media coverage,

build alliances, including with other PR organizations and agencies, to marginalize the opposition. This explains, for example, Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of AltroConsumo’s annual events. (5)

The big puppet masters thus manipulate public opinion and influence policy. With profusion of investment in lobbying(Corporate Policy Activity, CPA), supported by public relations. It is only a pity that the success of the Corporation ‘s strategies comes at the expense of civil society. As was the case in Italy in the two recent examples involving:

the Nutri-Score. The alliance between Coca-Cola, Ferrero and Coldiretti has also prompted current Health Minister Roberto Speranza-among other Italian politicians (6)-to lash out against the ‘smart label.’ Although it is widely shown to be useful for consumers to distinguish junk food at a glance,

the Sugar Tax. Coca Cola Italia, thanks to strong political pressure accompanied by television advertisements highlighting the workforce employed in the Bel Paese and threats of blocking investment, has already managed to depreciate to the extent of 85 percent the government’s fiscal forecast for fiscal year 2020. (7)

Impact on childhood obesity

Children under the age of 12 are not mentioned in Coke’s documents. But it is evident how they and their mothers were also in the crosshairs of the promotional campaigns analyzed in the study. And so it is that influencers and celebrities have been enlisted who can reap acclaim on even the youngest children. One above all, singer as well as Radio Disney hostess Alli Simpson. So much for the WHO recommendations on advertising aimed at children .

Children’s exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods plays a significant role in the continued increase in childhood obesity rates planetwide, according to the researchers. The prevalence of which, as noted, is also alarmingly high in Europe. In Italy especially (see Istat report 29.10.19). With the risk of, among other things, the increased occurrence of 13 types of cancers. (8)

Corporate Social Responsibility, SDGs?

‘Globally, Coca Cola is publicly committed to reducing children’s exposure to harmful marketing. But what they say in public is at odds with their internal documents showing how they deliberately decided to target children as part of their promotion efforts‘ (Gary Sacks, associate professor at Deakin University, co-author of the study. See footnote 1).

Harvard University, T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published on 12/19/19 an epidemiological study of obesity rates in the United States. (9) The researchers examinedbody mass index(BMI) data on 6.2 million adults, collected between 1993 and 2016, in the BehavioralRisk Factor Surveillance System Survey (BRFSS). On this basis, it has been predicted that ‘by 2030 about half of the adult population of the United States will be afflicted with obesity and a quarter with severe obesity.’ With extraordinary impact, evidently, on public health costs as well.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to which corporations devote corpulent manuals each year should tend to the crucial goal in the food sector of transforming its role from ‘key to the problem’ to ‘key to the solution. Until this happens, citizens-ConsumActors-voters will have to fight against industrial strategies that are truly contrary to the primary interest of every individual, health.

Institutions must in turn intervene with cogent measures. To prevent Big Food from continuing to externalize the enormous health and social costs of its junk food onto the community. It is worth mentioning-among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in UN Agenda 2030-Goal no. 12, ‘Responsible Production and Consumption. Sixty-eight percent of the best-selling foods aimed at children in Europe are junk food, according to a very recent study by the European Commission. When is the Change coming?

Dario Dongo

Notes

(1) Benjamin Wood, Gary Ruskin, Gary Sacks (2019). Targeting Children and Their Mothers, Building Allies and Marginalising Opposition: An Analysis of Two Coca-Cola Public Relations Requests for Proposals. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17(1), 12. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17010012. The documents cited in the study are available on the US Right to Know website, at https://usrtk.org/academic-work/coke-pr-campaigns-tried-to-influence-teens-views-on-health-impacts-of-soda-study-says/

(2) Moodie R, Stuckler D, Monteiro C, Shero, N, Neal B, Thamarangsi T, Lincoln P, Casswell S. (2013). Profits and pandemics: Prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink industries. Lancet 2013, 381, 670-679. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(12)62089-3

(3) Obesity is indeed considered one of the three causes of the ongoing Global Syndemic, according to the eponymous study published in Lancet. See previous article https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/idee/global-syndemic-il-mix-micidiale-di-malnutrizione-e-crisi-ecologica

(4) Social media influencer Jake Boys has also been enlisted elsewhere on Tv-Coke. Following the same script of sports games associated with the brand, such as the Coca-Cola Santa Claus Championship, at Christmas 2016 (v. https://youtu.be/QdyZKC5ymWI)

(5) The mere fact of associating the Coca-Cola brand with the annual events of the premier consumer organization in Italy is worth consolidating the Corporation‘s reputation. Putting one’s flag even on the house not for sale

(6) See note 5 to the previous article https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/mercati/la-rivoluzione-francese-del-cibo-buono

(7) NB: Sugar Tax has already been successfully implemented in many countries around the world, including in Europe. With the appreciable result of inducing soft drink manufacturers to cut the amount of sugar in half, as we demonstrated by comparing the same drinks sold in England and Italy. SEE https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/salute/aranciate-in-italia-doppia-razione-di-zucchero. Paradoxically, in reducing the population’s exposure to the risks associated with excessive sugar intake, bottlers also save on raw material costs. The recent purchase of Lurisia by Coca-Cola Italia of the rest shows how bottling natural mineral water can be an excellent alternative to do beverage business without contributing to the diabetes epidemic. V. https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/salute/diabete-emergenza-italia

(8) See previous article https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/salute/i-bambini-obesi-e-in-sovrappeso-a-maggior-rischio-tumore

(9) Zachary J. Ward, Sara N. Bleich, Angie L. Cradock, Jessica L. Barrett, Catherine M. Giles, Chasmine Flax, Michael W. Long, Steven L. Gortmaker (2019). Projected U.S. State-Level Prevalence of Adult Obesity and Severe Obesity. New England Journal of Medicine, December 19, 2019, doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1909301