Coke Strategy: Market Soda to Kids

Recent leak of Coke executive emails give us an inside look at how the soda industry is lobbying to keep marketing soda to kids around the world. They fight and defeat legislation protecting kids from junk food advertising and are adamant in their pursuit to redefine childhood as ending at twelve so that 13 year olds aren’t protected from their products.

Reading emails between a bunch of adults who profit from selling sugar to kids, celebrating their ability to defeat legislation that would protect kids from target marketing… it just makes me angry.

It’s so clear that Coca-Cola understands the success of national restrictions on marketing tobacco to kids, and they’re doing everything they can to convince the public and legislators that they should be allowed to self-regulate soda advertising themselves. They have not earned this trust.

Rising Consumer Demand for Advertising Protection

Coca-Cola acknowledges outright that it’s lobbying for self-regulation in advertising while its consumers and health advocates think the problem is big enough to warrant a legislative solution.

“The pressure of consumers’ and other organizations towards legislative rather than self- or co-regulatory approach will be intensified.”
Sophia Chrysopoulou, Coca-Cola (5/25/2016)
“NGOs and consumer groups’ pressure to establish an age for the child, weaken the importance of self-regulation and promote the WHO proposed nutrient model”
Sophia Chrysopoulou, Coca-Cola (5/25/2016)

An Regulatory Attempt in Poland

For example, in April of last year, the Polish Ministry of Culture proposed an amendment to the local broadcasting law which would restrict advertising for ‘unhealthy’ products like soda to children under 16.

The soda industry rallied and successfully defeated the policy:

“Our local Public Affairs and Communications team was instrumental in rallying local industry to defend the self-regulatory approach of the EU Pledge over this restrictive law.”
Wouter Vermeulen, Coca-Cola Europe (5/29/15)

They were able to make sure the soda industry views were prioritized in the health policymaking.

“Sent it back to the Ministry of Culture, which is tasked to adapt and take into account the arguments of the other Ministries which are aligned with the industries views.”
Wouter Vermeulen, Coca-Cola Europe (5/29/15)

And Michael Goltzman, Coca-Cola VP, reacted to news of this policy defeat by calling it “Good progress”.

For whom?

A Self-Regulation Model via the European Union

In May 2016 a proposed revision was suggested for the “Audiovision Media Services Directive” (AVMSC), an EU-wide legislation governing television broadcasting soda advertising, sponsorship, product placement in programs, and advertising to minors.

The revision was unique for what it was missing: no age limit for marketing unhealthy food to children.

While EU Member States were pursuing their own child marketing policies, why did was it not included in this revision? Coca-Cola takes credit that their voluntary EU pledge not to market to any children under 12 was successful at blocking legislative action.

“The value of self-regulation in commercial communications was acknowledged today by the European Commission and there was no age limit for children suggested on an EU level, in a proposed revision of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD). This is the result of the effort put on EU Pledge which has received very positive feedback.”
Sophia Chrysopoulou, Coca-Cola (5/25/2016)

Why is this such an important win for Coca-Cola?

“Because it acknowledges that credible self-regulation in advertising (such as the EU Pledge of which Coca-Cola is a member), is a viable strategy for the industry.”
“will facilitate the EU Pledge to be adopted locally and this will function as a proof point for it across the industry (this is also linked with the importance of discussions on nutrition criteria).”
Sophia Chrysopoulou (5/25/2016)

A regional executive chimed in that the voluntary pledge would help them defeat any country-level policies across Europe as well.

This is a significant win and proof that self-regulation (EU Pledge) by industry can positively influence public policy setting in the EU, which in turn helps to frame the debate at country level.
Wouter Vermeulen, Coca-Cola Europe (5/25/16)

And a national Coke executive suggests scaling self-regulatory pledges across the world to defeat legislation protecting children from marketing.

“As the Europe update demonstrates below, engaging with govts to establish credible self-regulatory and co-regulatory systems to govern marketing communications to children can be effective. The EU work is instructive for us as the Coca-Cola system engages with other companies to launch new self-regulatory marketing systems in markets in Brazil, Colombia, GCC and South Africa among others.”
Michael Goltzman, Coca-Cola (5/25/16)

They’re so proud of themselves.

Because they’re delusional enough to believe a capitalist sugar company can improve public health better than health policy…. right.

“Jon Woods, the Coca-Cola Company’s General Manager in GB&I… will highlight that our efforts in health and well-being are driven by consumers and that industry can deliver change faster and more effectively through its innovation power than governments can through regulation.”
Wouter Vermeulen, Coca-Cola (4/28/16)

Interestingly, they were successful at convincing advertisers to ally with them to protect their rights to advertise to kids.

“As it has successfully been the case up to now, we will continue leveraging the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) as the key association in leading this process, in order to safeguard that the main important elements remain in the final legislation.”
Sophia Chrysopoulou (5/25/2016)

How long will the advertising world let Coca-Cola influence its ethics on predatory marketing of sugar to kids? Seems like time to tell your friend they’ve gone off the deep end and you won’t be following.

A Self-Regulation Success in the Gulf Cooperation Council

Coca-Cola recently rolled out a similar self-regulatory framework for soda advertising to kids regionally Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. As the epidemics of obesity and diabetes rose, the soda industry swooped in to make sure no health regulations would be proposed.

“The Gulf Cooperation Council countries have some of the world’s highest levels of obesity and diabetes, and therefore concrete industry action is important to avoid regulation.
Michael Goltzman, Coca-Cola (3/2/16)
That’s right: The soda industry reacts to disease epidemics by thwarting legislation to potentially prevent them.

The goal of national or regional self-regulatory pledges are “to localize the initiative and allow the local industry to engage directly with government officials” to prevent local regulations as well.

“Local member companies are currently considering a number of additional potential commitments in GCC to demonstrate industry leadership that could head off regulation.”
Michael Goltzman, Coca-Cola (3/2/16)

And their attempts to monitor, prepare, and then kill child marketing legislation appears to be working.

But Policies Continue to Emerge

In Portugal, legislators recently proposed a new marketing code that would restrict advertising to children under 12, increase the TV viewership threshold to 50%, and limit sponsorship of large events. And the soda industry was already:

“engaged with the party leading this project and has had positive interactions so far.”
“Global Government Relations Dashboard “ via Michael Goltman (4/4/16)

And in Spain,

“the local team expects that new requirements on self-regulation or new regulations on advertising to children may be proposed in the coming months, regardless of the composition of the new cabinet”
“Global Government Relations Dashboard “ via Michael Goltman (4/4/16)

In Chile, a set of proposed regulations would ban the advertising of food and beverages to kids under 14 if they exceed certain levels of calories, sodium, sugar and saturated fat. These products would need to include stop sign labels to identify “EXCESSIVE IN sugar”. Coca-Cola took an international approach to defeating the policy:

“ABChile, ANDA Chile, GMA and others met with the Comptroller’s office this week to raise concerns that the regulations violate national and international laws and treaties. Our local and corporate SRA and PAC teams are have been closely engaged.
We continue to work with industry associations and the local teams to evaluate all additional challenges and options, including encouraging international governments to emphasize the impact on global trade and possible legal proceedings.”
Toney Anaya, Coca-Cola (5/8/15)

They acknowledge that 29% of their products would fall into this excessive sugar category:

By 2016, when the regulation is scheduled to go into effect, approximately 29% of our brands will be covered…. given the high percentage of Coca-Cola red sales, impact as measured by volume and SKU is more significant.

That’s how you stay ahead of the curve.

Defeating Marketing Regulation Becomes International Priority

As consumer demands rise for protecting kids from soda across Europe, Coca-Cola has added this policy threat to their policy agenda and has begun to “prepare” to fight back.

Two youth advertising restrictions are prioritized in the preparation category (pink highlights above) in March 2016: Raising the EU definition of children above 12 and then banning soda advertising to those children. They appear to think banning soda marketing to kids 12–18 will have a significant impact on their business of selling soda… why do you suppose that is?

They say they want to keep children 13–18 years old out of the definition of children because:

At 12, they have developed their behaviour as consumers and effectively recognise advertising and understand its intent. By this age they can critically assess marketing messages. — Coca-Cola Britain

But could it also be that 13–18 year olds are the soda industry’s growth market? Like cigarettes, the teenage years are when lifetime health behavior is formed. And it’s where all the soda industry’s lifestyle advertising is currently targeted.

If children 13–18 were protected from soda advertising, maybe their generation would just drink water instead. And then what would become of the soda industry?