I have been writing for a long time about Coca-Cola Co.’s unethical marketing of its obesity-producing products, especially to children. For example, though Coca-Cola vowed to stop advertising directly to audiences that were composed of more than 35% children1 in the 200 countries and territories in which it operates,2 its promises were found to be false.
While it said it would stop advertising on children’s TV, Coke still advertises on family-oriented TV, at amusement and theme parks and in other child-rich venues, reported the Center for Science in the Public Interest.3 Coca-Cola also said it would cease using characters who strongly appeal to children under 12, yet it still uses its holiday polar bears4 to sell its products — even as I write this.
And there’s more, as the late-night ads say. Not content to just continue advertising to kids despite its vows, in December 2019, Coca-Cola North America debuted its “Insiders Club” — a whole new way to stick with Coke products.
Fattening Beverages Delivered Directly to Your Door
What is the Coca-Cola Insiders Club? It is a subscription service that gives “fans the opportunity to taste some of 20-plus new drinks launching in early 2020,” without having to wait for the new brands to hit the stores, says Coca-Cola North America.5,6
Members of the Insiders Club will receive a monthly shipment of new beverage brands ranging from flavored sparkling water to Coke Energy, along with “a few surprises and swag”7 for a small monthly fee.
To add urgency to joining the Insiders Club, Coca-Cola limited the number of subscribers who could join to 1,000 and the slots filled up in three hours.8 Latecomers who had been shut out were told they could join the waitlist.9
The Insiders Club is a cross between a loyalty program and an e-commerce subscription service. Coca-Cola says it got the idea of cultivating “loyalists” who want early access to a new product from the success of Coke Cinnamon. The subscription idea came from the success of meal kits and other items now sold through subscriptions.
It is a novel way to enjoy Coca-Cola products, where members can “enjoy the ease of having hand-picked products arrive on their doorstep, and the Christmas morning-like joy of opening up a mystery box each month,” Coke says of the new program.
But not everyone agrees about the “Christmas morning-like joy” the Insiders Club will bring. Posted comments that initially greeted the announcement included, “So you want me to pay you $ 10 a month to be a test rat for Type 2 diabetes?” and “Poisonous garbage … should be illegal for kids under 16.”10
Clearly, many realize the Coca-Cola Insiders Club is actually an Obesity Subscription Service. Shameless Coca-Cola strikes again.
Coca-Cola’s Hand in Scientific Research
When the Coca-Cola Co. was caught trying to secretly influence health and sugar science, it vowed greater transparency. Coca-Cola’s then chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent wrote a 2015 Wall Street Journal op-ed that admitted the company had made mistakes in the way it:
“ … engaged the public health and scientific communities to tackle the global obesity epidemic that is plaguing our children, our families and our communities… I am disappointed that some actions we have taken to fund scientific research and health and well-being programs have only served to create more confusion and mistrust.”11
But articles that appeared in The BMJ12 and the Journal of Public Health Policy13 in 2019, using data obtained by the nonprofit consumer and public health watchdog organization U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), showed that Coca-Cola is still controlling research.
Despite lacking day-to-day control over research conducted with Louisiana State University, the University of South Carolina, the University of Toronto and the University of Washington, Coke can still suppress unfavorable findings without even giving a reason. Responding to the revelations, Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, said the research:14
“ … demonstrates what we have all long suspected. Companies that sponsor research make sure that they get what they pay for. The study documents the involvement of Coca-Cola in many aspects of developing research projects.
It is no surprise that its funded research typically comes out with results that are useful for Coca-Cola marketing purposes. Industry funded research is marketing research, not scientific research.”
Coca-Cola’s Deceptions Continue
You would think with the exposure of Coca-Cola’s research and child advertising duplicity, the company would want to prevent further public embarrassment and tarnishing of its image. But more evidence of Coca-Cola playing fast and loose with the truth has surfaced.
A December 2019 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health analyzed Coca-Cola’s requests for proposals to public relations firms for its 2016 Rio Olympic Games and its 2013 to 2014 “Movement is Happiness” campaigns and found:15
” … Coke specifically targeted teenagers and their mothers as part of the two PR campaigns. Furthermore, Coke was explicit in its intentions to build allies, particularly with key media organisations, and to marginalise opposition.
This study highlights how PR campaigns by large food companies can be used as vehicles for marketing to children, and for corporate political activity.
Given the potential threats posed to populations’ health, the use of PR agencies by food companies warrants heightened scrutiny from the public-health community, and governments should explore policy action in this area.”
Even though a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted from 2015 to 2016 found that 18.5% of U.S. kids ages 2 to 19 were obese, the goals of Coca-Cola’s Rio Olympic Games PR campaign “included trying to shift teens’ sense of the health impacts of drinking sugary soda,” reported The Washington Post.16
The tactics are reminiscent of another harmful product’s lobby, said Gary Ruskin of USRTK, a co-author of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health paper.17
“What’s insidious here is a health campaign that is using tobacco’s tactics, promoting alternative science in a way that advances the notion that sugary sodas aren’t really so bad for people’s health.”
Coca-Cola’s alternative science is an impediment to enacting effective policies to address the harm caused by sugary drinks, says Ruskin.18
“There’s a global effort from policymakers and public health people across the world trying to grasp the … effect of ultra-processed food on human health … It’s a weapon of mass destruction.”
Coca-Cola Influences Policy at the Highest Levels
USRTK also obtained emails exposing how Coca-Cola lobbied the CDC to advance its corporate objectives at the price of public health.19
After the World Health Organization published a new guideline that called sugary beverages a primary cause of global childhood obesity, a former Coca-Cola strategist lobbied a current CDC director to get a meeting with WHO decision makers to change their sugary drink guidelines. According to documents obtained by USRTK, and reported in The BMJ:20,21
“Barbara Bowman, former director of the CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, agreed to try to help Alex Malaspina, a Coca-Cola strategist and former executive, to soften the World Health Organization’s stance on soft drinks …
… In 2014 Bowman, a former Coca-Cola employee, wrote in an email to Wamwari Waichungo, a Coca-Cola vice president, asking him to ‘please change to my personal email address.’ Bowman left the CDC in June 2017.”
A major and successful Coca-Cola goal is to portray obesity as mainly caused by a lack of exercise rather than excessive calories and therefore not the fault of soft drink makers.
To that end, Coca-Cola provides funding to universities and a wide spectrum of medical groups including the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American College of Cardiology and the American Academy of Pediatrics.22,23
It also contributes to the CDC itself, which accepts corporate donations through its CDC foundation.24,25 You can’t help but wonder if that is why Harvard Medical School/Partners in Health, a recipient of Coca-Cola funding, writes this about obesity:26
“Obesity results from energy imbalance: too many calories in, too few calories burned. A number of factors influence how many calories (or how much ‘energy’) people burn each day, among them, age, body size, and genes. But the most variable factor-and the most easily modified-is the amount of activity people get each day.”
Michael Pratt, who served as senior adviser for global health at the CDC, previously served as scientific adviser to ILSI North America, a group founded by Coca-Cola’s Malaspina.
Obesity Is a Childhood Scourge
Since the 1970s, obesity rates for children have tripled.27 Childhood obesity costs as much as $ 14 billion a year in direct health expenses but the real tragedy is what it does to the health of the children themselves. Here are some of the complications of obesity listed by the University of California San Francisco Children’s Hospital:28
Asthma — Overweight children are at risk of asthma.
Diabetes — Overweight children and adolescents are at risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Gallstones — The obese have a higher incidence of gallstones.
Heart Disease — Atherosclerosis, associated with high triglyceride levels, can develop in obese children.
High Blood Pressure — Overweight children are more likely to have high blood pressure, which can strain the heart.
Liver Problems — Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, a liver problem, is more common in the obese.
Menstrual Problems — Obesity often brings on early puberty and can contribute to uterine fibroids and menstrual irregularities in later life.
Trouble Sleeping — Obstructive sleep apnea, a serious, potentially life-threatening breathing disorder, is more common in overweight children.
It is not just American children who are at risk. Big Food, of which Coca-Cola is a leader, is increasingly eyeing poor countries as markets for their soft drinks and junk and processed foods.
In addition to the many diseases soft drinks and junk food invite, Big Food also supplants the subsistence and indigenous agriculture of developing countries by introducing GMO crops and the toxic chemicals that accompany them, such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
Coca-Cola’s Expansionism Continues
From its sneaky advertising to children and bought research, to its aggressively promulgated fiction that lack of exercise alone, and not sugary drinks, causes obesity, Coca-Cola has earned a permanent place in the Big Food hall of shame. Yet, undaunted, Coca-Cola is continuing its aggressive expansionism with its Obesity Subscription Service, otherwise known as its Insiders Club.