Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
Predictably, the collective response of my friends and colleagues in public health to a new television ad about obesity by the Coca-Cola Company has been less than warm and bubbly. Sensing propaganda, evasion, hypocrisy, and desperation in Coke’s efforts, my clan has largely reacted with their own blend of dismissal, derision, and disgust.
I confess I am sorely tempted to join them. I am the furthest thing from a food industry apologist. I have devoted years of my life to the development of programs for children and adults alike that reveal the all-too-often lamentable truth about the so-called “food” supply. I have noted repeatedly that as we got fat and our kids got diabetes- somebody was chuckling about it all the way to the bank.
Nor do I have even a little love for The Coca-Cola Company. I consider their flagship offering a chemistry experiment in a cup. I haven’t had a soda in some 35 years since I first saw that light. Coca-Cola has systematically opposed public health campaigns to reduce soda consumption, deflected criticism, denied epidemiologic truths, and distorted their own contributions to epidemic obesity.
And when it comes to polished and compelling ads that obscure any semblance of truth, Coca-Cola has an impressive track record. They have given us polar bears enjoying Coke as they frolic in their winter wonderland.
Reacting to Coke’s misleading depiction of polar bears, the Center for Science in the Public Interest engaged musician Jason Mraz, to give us the “real” bears. I fully support this campaign to show what might happen if polar bears actually did drink Coke. But of course, these aren’t ‘real’ bears- because polar bears don’t drink soda. So, the ‘real’ issue is that we may not be smarter than the average bear after all. Bears are still eating and drinking what bears should eat and drink- to the extent we aren’t making it impossible for them. We, on the other hand, have been drinking Coca-Cola out of ever-larger containers.
But Coke is quite right about one thing: we are all in this together. Consider that when McDonald’s- another good contender for the food industry’s evil empire award- gave us McLean Deluxe, we didn’t buy it. The product expired not for want of supply, but for want of demand. Folks, that’s not McDonalds’ problem. It’s yours, and mine. It’s our kids’ problem.
Similarly, remember Apha-Bits cereal? If you haven’t seen it lately, here’s why- courtesy of some inside information. Post reduced both the salt and sugar content, actually making the product more nutritious- and people stopped buying it. Sales plummeted from about $80 million a year, to $10 million.
Most product reformulations that allegedly give us better nutrition are actually lateral moves- fixing one thing, breaking another. All too often, banner ads implying better nutrition are entirely misleading. Low-fat peanut butter is substantially less nutritious than regular. But on those rare occasions when the food industry actually gives us better products, we don’t buy them.
Which brings us back to Coke: what, exactly, do we want from them?
As I see it, against a backdrop of a growing burden of national and global chronic disease in which they are complicit, Coke has four options. They can (1) ignore the public health problem, and keep on keeping on; (2) acknowledge the public health problem, but say it’s not their problem- and keep on keeping on; (3) confess their corporate sins and absolve themselves with ceremonial suicide; or (4) change.
Choices 1 and 2 have pretty much run their course. Shareholders are unlikely to bless option 3. Which leaves us with option 4: change. Change their product formulations. Change their inventory. And change their messaging. Stop talking about frolicking polar bears, and start talking about obesity. And while we have cause to be suspicious about Coca-Cola’s motives, that’s just what the new ad appears to be doing.
I share my colleagues’ visceral opposition to everything Coke. But I think we may be letting our abdominal viscera get the better of vital organs situated higher up. Soft drinks do exist; they are big business. Doing something about that involves hard choices.
Change- incremental change- is the most promising and plausible of them. So we have to allow for it if what we want is progress. Shifting ad campaigns from frolicking polar bears to a discussion of epidemic obesity looks a bit like progress to me. If we won’t accept change without calling it hypocrisy, then we don’t really want progress. We want revenge.
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com