Coke Obesity Ads — Critics Have Critics

Our preference poll, between the Coke obesity advertising campaign and a parody it inspired, brought a much greater diversity of views to the surface than news media has. Media coverage largely focused on critics who saw the campaign as a lame effort to distract from the harm done by sugary drinks like Coke. But in our admittedly unscientific poll, the vote was closer than you might expect from a group of obesity stakeholders. We found almost as much distaste for the exaggerations in the parody as we found for the half-truths in Coke’s advertising. In other words, the critics have critics.

One expert in obesity put it this way: “The parody has an important message but is weakened by multiple statements that go beyond the available evidence or are exaggerations.” Another was more forceful in his criticism. “Let us consider the picture we paint to the average American when we become so highly indignant about a product with which we don’t agree. This parody is funny, but many people will find this offensive and an attempt by an out of touch elite to mandate behavior.”

Others were just a passionate in defense of the parody. “If we’re not in favor of taking action to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, then we’re not serious about tackling the obesity epidemic,” said one. And for what it’s worth, the parody drew more support than Coke’s ad, however slim the margin.

Hyperbole and half-truths get in the way of dialogue and progress on serious issues of science and health. Much of the reason our efforts against obesity have been so unproductive to date is because they are informed more by passion and bias than by evidence.

Some facts give us reason to hope that we’re making progress. Beverage tastes are changing. In part because of this debate, consumption of soda has dropped substantially and water consumption has grown over the last decade. Perhaps with attention to the facts and evidence, including evidence about consumer preference and motivation, we can make progress after all.