Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign has backfired.

The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a public health advocacy group, used the campaign to make a point about the health risks associated with drinking a lot of Coke. Using the company’s custom label creator, they invited the world to “Share a Coke with Obesity.”

Coke tried to anticipate this sort of thing. There is a long list of words you can’t use. Surprisingly, obesity wasn’t one of them.

Mike Howard, CEO of Boston design agency Daughters and  Howard, was playing with the generator while working for the CSPI. He created the bottle and shared it with the world. Coke has now placed “obesity” on its list of banned words, but the damage was already done.

Is this just an attention-seeking gimmick? Does it actually achieve anything?

We’re not sure. On one hand, it’s tempting to see these kinds of attacks on Coca-Cola as being an easy target for self-promotion. After all, nobody thinks that Coca-Cola is good for them. This gimmick isn’t saying anything new. And yet, despite this knowledge, people still continue to drink it. Faced with marketing efforts fuelled by billions of dollars, people make unhealthy choices. It’s this, surely, that we need to attack.

Coca-Cola thinks it’s all a bit childish:

“Thousands of Coca-Cola fans have created custom bottles through this program, and the ‘Share a Coke’ website has guardrails in place to help ensure a positive customer experience,” wrote a company spokesman in an email to TakePart. “It’s unfortunate that CSPI and others deliberately try to turn a fun experience into something negative to further attacks on our brand.”

But then, Coke would say that. And in that last sentence, perhaps, lies the campaign’s value: it attacks the brand. Faced with slick, multi-million pound marketing, perhaps slick marketing is the only way to fight back? Men in lab coats telling us how unhealthy Coke is clearly isn’t really working; a new approach is needed.

The problem with these kinds of campaigns is that they simplify complex problems. There’s always the risk that, rather than directing their ire at the company in questio, people will respond by criticising its customers. If obesity can be solved by something as simple as not drinking Coke anymore, people might think, why are people so stupid as to do it? Obesity should be understood as the complex condition it is, with Coke – and the marketing power of the food industry more widely – just one factor. These campaigns risk undermining that. It’s why we disagreed with CrossFit a couple of months ago. Their ironic undermining of Coke’s slogan was a bit aggressive, and seemed to place as much blame on the consumer as the hugely powerful, multi-billion pound manufacturer.

But maybe that’s a risk we have to take. Thanks to the rise of social media, people are more socially conscious these days. Businesses are expected to conduct themselves in a responsible way. Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media give consumers a chance to voice their opposition to the unethical behaviour of large companies, and, with strength in numbers, threaten profits enough to change them. It’s fair to say we need to engage social media to meaningfully challenge the unethical practices of companies like Coca-Cola.

The questio, then, is how do we engage social media? With catchy, shareable content. Unfortunately, catchy, shareable content tends to be a bit shallow. The message has to be easily digestible and to the point. Perhaps the somewhat simplistic nature of the messages is an inevitable casualty of a more effective form of opposition.

Whatever the correct answer, the debate is certainly interesting. How do we balance the need to inform people as to the true complexity of conditions like obesity and diabetes, without losing the slick effectiveness of social media-driven protest campaigns?

Let us know in the comments.




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