Corporate Responsibility in Health Campaigns

Oil drawing of the tops of coke bottles against a red background with the title, 'Corporate responsibility in health campaigns'

When Coke launched its obesity campaign in Australia, social scientists spoke out about the problems with the messaging and strategy. The company says they are helping to combat weight-related illness by releasing smaller cans and by selling its low calorie Coke varieties. Coke also says it is providing nutritional information on its vending machines and it has teamed up with a bicycle group to encourage exercise.

Today’s post discusses the problems with Coke’s social media marketing strategy to appear more socially conscious about public health. The issue is not about whether or not you or I drink cola occassionally; the issue is broader, about how companies blur the lines on health and junk food.

To date, Coke has tried, and failed, to improve their corporate responsibility. Coke invests a great deal of money in science as a means to address health concerns, however none of this marketing speaks to the social and health problems associated with sugary soft drinks. Addressing social science concerns would better serve Coke’s corporate change, if Coke is indeed committed to its campaign of healthy living.

Corporate responsibility

In the marketing world, Coke is often commended for supporting fan-led social media. A survey showed Coke has the second-largest following amongst international brands after Disney. That survey shows that millions of fans follow Coke’s Facebook page because they love the product, rather than simply because they’re after giveaways.

Asian girl drinks a can of coke
Photo by Tommy Wong via Flickr, CC.

Coke’s 2013 obesity campaign was an attempt to appear more socially conscious. Unfortunately, this marketing is grounded in traditional media gimmicks. It’s troubling to see major companies struggling to adapt their marketing to the positive power of social media. Social media is less effective when it’s used as a channel for direct advertising. It works better as a customer engagement service. Social media is at its most powerful when companies are transparent about their motives. Sure, you want to continue to grow your sales, but if you want to do this by appealing to social good, you’d better be prepared to put in the work to back up your marketing. When the public talks, a company needs to be prepared to listen and act.

This obesity campaign is Coke’s attempt to grow its brand towards a new market: the consumer movement that pushes companies to embody social good. The obesity campaign offers a token gesture of social good without any strong commitment towards changing its core business practice. Professor of Public health Rob Moodie from the University of Melbourne has critiqued Coca Cola’s obesity campaign:

This is a classic smokescreen… We know that obesity is a commercial success and Coca-Cola has been a huge participant and beneficiary of that commercial success…Their job is not health. It’s making money.

It’s curious that Coke would attempt this strategy in Australia after encountering a backlash in the USA after launching a similar campaign.

Coke says it is supporting consumers to make informed choices through its obesity campaign. In theory, adults are free to make whatever consumer choices they please. In practice, freedom of choice is not so equal for everyone in any given society.

Constraints on consumer choice

Patterns of consumption vary according to culture and socio-economics. How a working class parent feels about their spending choices is influenced by budget, education, friends and family. How they are then able to exercise their consumer choice is further constrained as by legislation, lobby groups and what products are physically available nearby their local neighbourhoods.

Social science shows that Coke is better able to saturate its marketing in particular places, such as in local councils that need external funding.  The choices made under these conditions are very different to wealthier families who have more money and resources. If you have the income, education and physical access, it’s easier to buy drinks made from fresh ingredients. The choice to drink coke may not have the same impact if you can afford to buy good produce, gym memberships to support exercise, and if you can access better nutritional expertise. It’s easier to find time to join a bike club or to workout outdoors if you don’t have to work night shift, odd hours or if you can access child care to free up your time to work off your calorie intake.

Children of various backgrounds sit on the ground of a gym. They wear white t-shirts with the word 'FIT' on the front, as well as red hats
Coke donates $10,000 to a youth group in Washington USA as part of its Live Positively program 2011. Photo: City of Bellevue, WA via Flickr, CC

The problem is bigger than personal choice. Coke primarily targets youth through its campaigns, and these consumers are less able to make good nutritional decisions. There is of course a role for parents to play, but the public health problem presented by Coke requires a social solution.

Soft drinks are allowed to be sold at schools because powerful lobby groups have intervened in nutritional reform. As Moodie points out, if Coke was committed to fighting obesity, they would not lace their core product with sugar, but more importantly, they would stop advertising to youth.

Studies show that pervasive availability of soft drinks influences the attitudes that youth have towards sugary drinks. One American study of over 700 teenage girls found that 96% of the girls consumed soft drink and over half of them drank at least two glasses each day. The teenagers reported a lack of awareness about healthier drink options available which taste good. Another problem limiting choices is that many schools have exclusive contracts with soft drink companies which means that soft drinks are the most widely-available and convenient options for teenagers.

So, what are better public health options? How can companies like Coke put their money where their mouth is on corporate responsibility?

Social science of corporate responsibility

Some experts say that health campaigns should be partly funded by taxes on products that contain “empty calories,” such as with the United Kingdom sugar tax. This revenue might also contribute towards incentive schemes to subsidise healthy drinks and food options for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. As noted, these are the people who suffer most from diet-related illnesses because they have fewer healthy options to begin with, and less money to address subsequent disease. This is only one small part of the solution.

Companies who are serious about reducing the health impact of their products need to commit to a serious review of its products and practices. They need to stop abusing their corporate power by bullying their way into schools and poor neighbourhoods. They need to accept that their marketing has a negative impact on public health, and in so doing, commit to responsible advertising that doesn’t target vulnerable groups.

In their Active Healthy Living report, Coke says it is committed to responsible advertising to help address obesity. They say they use “evidence-based science” to educate the public about making healthy choices. They even have a separate website dedicated to their Coca Cola Scholars Foundation and another for their Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness. Clearly they see that an investment in science is central to their brand image. They are simply not using this science effectively for public health.

In order to reduce the negative social impact of the business world, social science needs to inform corporate responsibility, as self-regulation and selective use of science clearly doesn’t work.

If a company genuinely seeks reform, then we should find a way to shape and improve their social contribution. True institutional changes come from helping companies adopt science to improve corporate responsibility. The problem here is that Coke does not seem to be listening. It is pushing the same tired campaign from one continent to another, without making true steps towards public health reform.

Coke says it stands for transparency and that it is committed to public health. The scientific evidence so far shows otherwise. It’s time to start listening to the social scientists.


This article was first published on 24 July 2013. I’m republishing on my blog as I collate my various writings onto my website.