Can do or can’t do, that is the question. Because it is a fact: EOS Magazine revealed that Coca-Cola is paying for an advertising campaign by the Association of Flemish Nutriction Experts and Dieticians (VBVD) that promotes the intake of added sugars. The campaign is being coordinated by nutrition communications agency Karott. And it smells like the nuclear forum campaign in stealth mode with its ‘true or false’ buttons.
It’s the third blogpost related to ethics in marketing and communications in a short time. I’d never guess that would happen, but it tells something about the profession, I guess.
Here is the advertisement that makes me think twice:
Headline: Sugar can play a part in a healthy eating pattern
So, apart from the ad’s ugliness, two thoughts:
1. We don’t need added sugar
A year ag0 the book De voedselzandloper (The Food Hourglass) by dr. Chris Verburgh was launched. It’s basic thesis: if you want to grow slimmer and older, change your eating pattern like described in the book. One clear point about sugar in the book is: we don’t need added sugar, there are enough sugars in fruit, vegetables and cereal. Sugar is addictive, dilutes our sense of taste and sticks our cells and blood vessels together (remember that cotton candy sticking on your face?).
Chris Verburgh hit a nerve in Belgium. The food industry reacted. Verburgh was attacked from all sides.
I can’t help relating this sugar campaign to the debate started by Chris Verburgh. People started doubting about the basic ingredients they’d use every day: milk, sugar, patatoes, bread. And they started doubting about the food industry and its habit of adding a little sugar to whatever they can. Just the kind of thing an Issues Communication Manager at a corporation would be monitoring reactively.
2. Coke = Black (as in ‘not see-through’)
One glass of Coke contains 30% of the daily sugar consumption amount advised to men by the WHO and 60% if you are a woman. I guess Coca-Cola is a stakeholder in the debate about sugar. That should allow them to take actions and communicate to its customers and to consumers. The new Coca-Cola Company website (owned media) would be a great platform to start the discussion. That would be the transparency one would expect in 2013.
However, Coca-Cola chose a stealth approach in Belgium by having a third party (rented and paid media) convey a message to the market. That is as transparant as its own black soda product.
While writing I had two thoughts more:
I keep asking, why do they communicate that way?
Maybe for Coke, happiness lies in the consumption of the moment and not in a long and healthy life. But I can’t and refuse to believe they would be that cynical.
Maybe they have used Belgium as a test market again. Let’s test if and how we can change people’s attitudes towards one of our main ingredients by renting a third party to communicate for us.
Or maybe their Issues Communications Manager had followed the health debate started by Chris Verburgh and he was determined to join the industry strike force. But the brand manager would’nt allow him/her to use the Coca-Cola brand name for his initiative. Then the Issues Communications Manager got creative. He hired a specialized agency that could find a trusted third party for hire.
4. Designed to Confuse
I can’t help blaming the agency. Karott states on its website:
Communicating in the sector of health and nutrition leaves no room for improvisation! This exercise requires precision and substantial knowledge. Karott’ has these assets in hand and will gladly put its scientific expertise and know-how at your disposal to help you designing targeted information whoever your audience is.
If I read this, I conclude that the pro-sugar campaign is a deliberate and well-wrought campaign.
In it’s reaction to EOS Magazine, Karott states that the campaign does not contain factual incorrect information. The information is correct. They did not break the law. They did not provide the full picture either, in spite of “its scientific expertise”. Take the headline “sugar can play a part in a healthy eating pattern”. Where do I find out about the conditions of this “can”? Ok, yes, below I get the WHO guidelines for daily consumption. Guidelines that have been established after intense lobbying by the food industry, accourding to EOS Magazine. And even more below I am refered to my local dietician. The carrot for the Dieticians Association to say yes to this partnership.
The Association of Flemish Nutriction Experts and Dieticians (VBVD) may lose credibility through this campaign. First reason: in many people’s world view they are the ones saying you should avoid sugar and candy and milky chocolate. I believe they actually do. If I would be a dietician I would ask some questions. If my association does such a big and costly effort, is that campaign really the most impactful message to get people in my store? Second reason: VBVD is now exposed as an organisation that can be bought by a corporate advertisers.
My professional appreciation of the campaign says it is designed to confuse. There are numerous examples in marketing literature that state that for example anti-smoking campaigns that focus on rational arguments for quitting in fact do have an adverse effect (I found them in Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath). And we get a lot of rational arguments in the sugar ad. Would those findings be part of the scientific expertise of Karott’ too?
5. What would a 2013 soda pop start up do?
Wouldn’t it be great if Coca-Cola (or even better the soda drinks industry) would announce a gradual reduction of the amount of sugar in its products? If they would commit themselves to reduce the amount of sugar by 2% each month, they would eliminate sugar from their product in about 4 years without the consumer even tasting it. That is a challenge. You will fear losing the market share you got now. But it would be the right thing to do.
My take for Coke: can’t do! Please stop stealth bombing us with “issue communications” and take responsibility. Put your effort where it counts: change your product. It will be difficult. The first step in the right direction will take you where consumers want you to be: as a part of their long and happy life. You’ll be admired in stead of blamed.
6. Links for further reading
Ad I found in newspaper De Standaard on April 20, 2013:
In short: “Innovation, information and excercise can help fight obesitas. Coca-Cola wants to play a part in a healthy society but we all have our responsibilities.” What is going to change now? Nothing I guess…