While Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s move to ban the sale of sodas over 16oz in New York City may have been shot down by a Supreme Court Judge on Monday, the politician’s plan has caught the media’s attention when it comes to soda companies’ role in America’s obesity problem. The dialogue regarding overweight Americans is a threat that hovers over soda manufacturers like a Mento over a bottle of Diet Coke, and how they deal with that threat requires some agile and well-timed PR messaging.
Industry giant Coca Cola, along with other companies such as its rival, Pepsi Cola, offer thousands of scholarships aimed at minority students. These initiatives are brilliant marketing moves for such corporations; through the establishment of these programs, Coke is able to earn the support (not to mention the patronage) of minority communities, gaining considerable brand loyalty. Their methods of attracting these customers, however, have garnered negative publicity from parties who claim that soda ultimately puts consumers at a far greater risk of obesity, especially in minority communities. The recent attention focused on the soda ban has exposed a self-serving image of Coca-Cola and similar soda manufacturers.
It’s impossible to argue that soda is a healthy product. This places the corporations in a difficult position, especially with the country’s growing fixation on remedying its considerable weight problem. Many times the easiest and least detrimental choice is to avoid entering the dialogue until it becomes a necessity; for Coca-Cola and other companies, that time has arrived amidst a flurry of articles, news pieces, and legal action. In response to this, Coca-Cola has decided to not only publicly acknowledge obesity, but also even taken a stand against it, as seen in their official statement.
So — how does an industry whose products directly contribute to unhealthy eating habits combat the very same problem it exacerbates? Take a cue from Coca-Cola: By citing their corporate sponsorship of the Olympics and other athletic programs, Coke puts emphasis on the importance of physical activity in preventing obesity. They’re backed up by the inarguable fact that physical activity is imperative when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and preventing obesity, and by focusing on this the company is skillfully circumventing the part of the problem that poor nutrition plays while still addressing the issue. This is a well-played move: By laying the blame on a lack of exercise rather than excessive intake of sugar and empty calories, Coke is able to create a legitimate diversion from their own products’ health risks in order to create an image of being a socially responsible company while simultaneously avoiding jeopardizing their own brand and profit. These efforts are seen as purely philanthropic as opposed to self-serving. By generating good press, the company has managed to tactfully alleviate the bad publicity that had recently been piled high on their shoulders. It’s a simple, solid strategy that has been proven time and time again. They’ve managed to successfully take back their story and control the narrative.
So far, Coca-Cola’s efforts to manage the recent incoming criticism have been extraordinarily effective, if perhaps a little transparent. This success may change, however, as more and more attention is turned towards the role food companies play in America’s continuous battle with the scale. Crusaders against obesity such as Mayor Bloomberg aren’t willing to let sleeping dogs lie, as evidenced by his plan to appeal the ruling in June. How Coca-Cola and competitors cope with the increasing social burdens publicly is a high-stakes decision that could cost them their reputation and profit.
As the pressure continues to build and soda companies face ever-increasing criticism heading their way, maybe it’s time more of them considered changing their practices and telling a story that assumes more social responsibility in order to benefit them (and their consumers) in the long run. As of now, the great obesity problem is a major PR crisis waiting to happen, and Coke is making all the right moves to stay afloat.