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Kicking the (Red) Can: Coke Comes Under Attack Amid Concerns About Obesity

advertising research / behavioral research / health research / blog

Show-stopping tagline of the week: Happiness doesn’t come in a red can. Obesity does. The “can” the ad refers to is Coke, and the ad (part of the Howard County Unsweetened campaign) asks people to choose healthier beverage options.(1) It moved me – kind of. I saw the ad. I hit print. I hit send. I grabbed the two people within earshot, and I shared. And…I proceeded to finish the Coke I was drinking.

Then for three days I’ve thought about why. I was excited about this ad. It grabbed my attention. I’m still thinking about it. But, it wasn’t enough to make me give up my afternoon caffeine fix. The fact is it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. And my hunch is I’m not the only one who loves a soda fix despite knowing it’s an unhealthy choice.

Attention-grabbing. Cuts through the clutter. These are buzz phrases I hear a lot around the office. But there’s more to advertising, and in particular cause marketing, than breakthrough. The ads that win creative awards aren’t necessarily the most effective (gasp!). The trouble with advertising effectiveness is it’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s in how you define it. How you measure it. We’re not selling bubble gum – we’re promoting sustained behavior change. And behavior change is hard.

Despite what the ad does well (hey, you can’t change anyone’s mind if you’re not noticed), it didn’t speak to the underlying reasons I was drinking that Coke. The implied benefit of switching off “the can” is a healthier lifestyle, a longer life. That should be enough, but let’s face it. Changing public health behavior doesn’t work that way.

The challenge is the can of Coke meets an immediate need. The Better Beverage Finder,(2) a web-based tool the ad directs its viewers to, is really cool. But I know where to find a bottle of water. It’s not necessarily that finding better choices is hard. It’s that making the better choice is. What I need the campaign to tell me is how that water is going to get me past the wall I’m hitting late afternoon. What can you do for me today? Obesity is also a long-term and extreme consequence. It’s the cancer of the tobacco health consequences. Take smokeless tobacco, for example. What if the “Happiness in a Can” ad was tweaked to address that issue? Rugged masculinity doesn’t come in a can. Cancer does. Would that work? Maybe. But what would likely work better is highlighting immediate, stepping stone-type consequences that are more easily framed as personally relevant.

This isn’t the first time an anti-soda effort has parodied Coke to make its point. About a year ago the Center for Science in the Public Interest brought us “The Real Bears.”(3) Their video show the progression of the happy polar bear family suffering the very unhappy truth about the consequences that come with a diet filled with soda.

As the Real Bears put it, “With one third of America overweight and another third obese, it's a wonder anyone is still swallowing what the soda companies are selling.”

What I like about this particular effort is it provides a slippery slope narrative that begins with more minor consequences (splitting his furry bear suit) that progress into more serious consequences (an amputated foot from diabetes). These consequences are also supported by facts – you can even download a list of debunked myths – WITH CITATIONS.(4)

Okay, so I’m not your typical consumer. Citations probably aren’t that exciting to most people. But, the lesson is universal. If we want people to curb their soda intake, we must translate facts into meaningful motivation. Something Coke and both of these anti-soda efforts clearly understand – behavior is about happiness, and happiness is different for everyone. The challenge is showing healthy choices as a means for people to obtain what they want. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: the consumer may know best, but (s)he often needs a nudge to put that knowledge into action. Hats off to Howard County and its partners for getting the conversation started in our area.


  1. http://www.hocounsweetened.org/
  2. http://www.betterbeveragefinder.org/
  3. http://www.cspinet.org/new/201210101.html
  4. http://www.therealbears.org/
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