Coca-Cola made headlines this week with a new television advertising campaign. It begins with a voice-over: “We’d like people to come together on something that concerns all of us – obesity”. The ad then lists all the ways Coca-Cola is playing “an important role” in preventing obesity.
This Coca-Cola marketing strategy is not, as the New York Times reported, “novel” or new. For a number of years, teachers and principals have opened their doors to Coca-Cola. The company’s message is simple: Coca-Cola is not part of the problem of obesity, but “part of the solution”.
Coke has helped create, fund and implement a variety of school-based nutrition education and physical activity programs across the globe. These programs include Step With It®, Singapore!, Live Positively fitness centres in American schools, Happy Playtime in China, and “Zafo no jugar” in Mexico.
But far from being part of the solution, Coca-Cola’s campaigns are taking advantage of the growing fears about obesity and exploiting children’s education for the company’s financial gain.
A Trojan horse
At a time when there is a moral panic about childhood obesity, Coke’s “free” gifts of obesity-fighting, educational resources, websites, lesson plans, and events are welcomed by many schools. The lack of funding, confidence, resources and knowledge (or time) to teach health and physical education are also contributing factors.
These programs are part of the company’s global “corporate social responsibility” strategy and act as a type of reputation insurance. They divert attention away from controversial subjects, such as the impact of marketing food and beverages to children, while profiting from the “halo effect” of helping teachers teach and children avoid getting fat.
The programs also provide social branding opportunities. Although Coke’s recently published official “obesity position” states: “We believe in commercial-free classrooms for children”, some programs, such as Step With It®, Singapore!, brand the children’s workbooks, teacher resources on hydration and even the teachers and children themselves with the famous Coca-Cola logo.
The company also develops goodwill with another important group – policymakers – and continues to successfully avoid stricter regulatory controls in areas such as fat taxes, food labelling systems, legislation and restricted marketing to children.
Self regulation remains the modus operandi of the food and drink industry. This is assisted by a proliferation of “partnerships” in Coke’s school-based anti-obesity programs, between Coke, government public health and education organisations, charities, voluntary groups and other private sector companies.
So what’s the problem?
Schools are sites for critical, democratic citizenship, not for the indoctrination of a multinational corporation’s view of what it means to be healthy and what a healthy body should look like.
Health and obesity are influenced by a wide range of historical, environmental, social, cultural, genetic, political, and economic factors. Coca-Cola “officially” acknowledges this complexity, yet its proposed “commonsense” school solutions are oversimplified. It tends to focus on the same old “burn more calories, eat fewer calories” mantra.
By and large these Coke programs promote a narrow view of what health is (to be a healthy body weight), how it may be achieved (individual healthy lifestyle choices) and at the same time ignores the wider determinants of children’s health, such as poverty, government policy, and corporate advertising.
A child’s fatness is treated as a consequence of simply making the “wrong” (greedy and lazy) choices. The message from Coke (and the teachers who uncritically teach the Coke programs) is loud and clear: if you’re fat or unhealthy, it’s your own – or your parents' – fault.
While Coca-Cola continues to market itself as socially responsible around obesity, it is transferring the responsibility for the politics of health and obesity onto children themselves. And, understandably, there’s some confusion among children and teachers about why one of the largest food and drink corporations in the world are teaching them about food and drink.
What can be done?
It’s unclear whether we’ll see the Coca-Cola ads on our screens. The company is reportedly evaluating the impact of the ad campaign in the US and “its relevance for the local market”.
What is clear is that Coca-Cola will continue to use schools to “teach” children that Coca-Cola is a health-promoting company, with healthy products, and that being healthy is as simple as making the right energy balance choices - and not being fat.
Pushing for regulations to restrict marketing in schools is one way to stem the tide of school commercialism. However, as corporations such as Coca-Cola continue to use stealthy marketing strategies to capture children’s attention, loyalty and identities, I propose a counter strategy.
Coca-Cola’s new ad ends with the line: “we know that when people come together, we can make a real difference”. I agree. Teachers can come together with students, principals with teachers, parents with their children, and challenge Coke’s solutions and intentions.
Through discussions and debates we can question Coke’s views on obesity, challenge the assumption that “fat=lazy=unhealthy”, learn how others view health, and even take action to improve those wider influences on children’s health.
This is one way school communities could make a real difference to children’s health, rather than doing exactly what Coke wants us to do: buy their products and blame ourselves.