Tuesday, March 17, 2015

My Experience with Coke's PR and Marketing Pop As a Healthy Snack

It has been a long time since I've been fired up about something so much that it drives me to my computer to write, but as I sat curled up on the couch with a huge box of tissues nursing a terrible cold this morning a story came on the news and my head exploded.

Well, not really, although my head kinda feels like it's going to explode, but that's besides the point. See, a few years ago I had an email exchange with a PR company regarding Coke mini cans that left me completely appalled. When I later met Chef Michael Smith, we had a conversation about it and he asked if I had written about it. At the time I said no. I didn't want to appear to be outing a company, but now that this story is in the news I think my experience should be shared.

According to recent news stories, Coke is working with bloggers, nutritionists, and dieticians to say that Coke is a healthy snack. Normally I'd just roll my eyes at this, but back in 2011 I received an email in my inbox, where a PR company working with Coke was talking about Laurie Gelman and how she was the host of Slice's The Mom Show. She was going to do a segment re: healthy snacks, and she was going to mention the Coke mini cans.They wanted me to write a story. There was no discussion of compensation.

Below is part of that email:

"Maintaining a balanced diet is key to leading a healthy lifestyle. For any lifestyle and family features you may be compiling, we have an interesting interview opportunity available.

Laurie Gelman, host of Slice’s The Mom Show and mother of two, is available for interview. She can speak to maintaining a healthy balanced diet both for yourself and for your children, specifically including topics such as:
  • Yummy and nutritious snacks for kids that Mom can prepare
  • How to keep kids energized and active
  • How to keep Mom energized during her busy day and overcome daily hurdles such as the 3pm slump

Laurie will mention the launch of the new Coca Cola mini can (a smaller-sized, 100-calorie can) as one snack idea. This portion size option gives consumers power to choose the beverage size that best meets their dietary and lifestyle needs. Dietary experts say that controlling portion sizes and subsequent calorie intake is important to maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Laurie of course has plenty of other suggestions that she can share with your readers which will perfectly compliment the subject of busy Moms and how they can ensure that their kids, and themselves, have a balanced diet."

The email went on to a press release where Coke was announcing their new mini cans and saying they were a good option to have a Coke with a smaller portion size.

First off, I have no issue with Coke. Like any other soda, it can be a nice treat on a hot day. We have it occasionally in the summer or on a holiday. Honestly, it's rare that I can drink a whole can-when I was a kid, my Mom and I would sometimes share a can.  The important distinction is that in our house, pop is viewed as an occasional TREAT. It's like a bag of chips, bar of chocolate, or other sweet/salty nutritionally bankrupt item that we may occasionally indulge in.

If we were to be perfectly honest about things, Coke is composed of water, sugar, caffeine, phosphoric acid,  caramel color and natural flavourings. There is no nutritional value to a a can of Coke, no matter the portion size. There is sugar, carbs, sodium. That is it.  My definition of a "healthy snack" is one that offers nutrition to my body. One that contains vitamins, minerals, or things my body needs to function. Coke does not offer any of these things. 

Now, I know that some people have pointed to the soda industry as responsible for the rise in obesity over the past decade and Coke has probably taken a hit in their sales. I don't think the soda industry is totally to blame, there are a lot of factors at play that need to be taken into consideration. But what makes me crazy is when companies try to market a product that is so obviously NOT healthy as healthy. Let's be honest here, people, it's POP.  (or soda, depending on where you're from).

This was my response to the PR company: 

" Thank you for your interest in Notes from the Cookie Jar.  I must admit I'm appalled by the idea that Coke mini cans are being pitched in a press release about an interview with someone as a healthy lifestyle choice.   Coke is full of sugar or high fructose corn syrup, caffeine, and is not (in my opinion) a healthy choice by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact,  I do not believe that children need soda of any kind in their diets (whether by 100 calorie can or not). For Mrs. Gelman to be suggesting this is completely ridiculous.  Children need to be hydrating with water or plain milk, not sugary substances filled with artificial flavors, preservatives, and caffeine. 

I cannot endorse, support, or write about someone who is suggesting that mini cans of Coke are part of a healthy lifestyle for children, no matter what the size is. "

 Healthy snacks are things like whole fruit, raw veggies, nuts, hummus and whole grain crackers. Even 100% juice offers some nutrition. Coke offers sugar and caffeine. 

There was a response to my mail:

"We are following up on our email regarding the new Coca-Cola mini can. The language used in the email sent to you was ambiguous and this was not our intention. 

The Coca-Cola mini can media launch is targeted at Moms and is intended to communicate increased product choices for consumers, providing more options in the beverage aisle for those looking to enjoy a favorite beverage while being conscious of portion size and calories. 

As host of the Mom Show and a mother herself, Laurie Gelman can offer views on making lifestyle choices for herself and her family.  The aim was to provide information that Moms would be interested in – including new portion packages for Moms and appropriate family members, since Mom is the primary gatekeeper to most grocery purchases.

Coca-Cola has a strict policy against marketing to children under age 12.  We include our regulations on not marketing to children on our website, here: http://www.thecoca-colacompany.com/citizenship/responsible_marketing.html and we encourage you to contact us if you have any questions."

Wait. Did I say anything about marketing to kids? Nope. I said that I didn't believe kids should have soda, and that suggesting it was healthy was.. "completely ridiculous". Marketing it to Moms as a healthy snack, when Moms don't snack that much but make snacks for kids is just skirting around the issue. Weren't two of those points about healthy snacks to do with snacks for kids?

Now Coke has found nutritionists who have written pieces where it's not very clear if they were paid for their articles, if they were sponsored or not by Coke, and some don't even remember if they were paid. Seriously? It certainly makes me wary of nutritional advice from so-called "experts" if this is the case. Kids are already influenced by marketing offered by companies about "healthy" choices, whether the advertising is directed at them or not. I work with kids, and talk to them about food every single day. They are swayed by colorful packaging, and repeat messages they have heard. 

Moms may be the gatekeepers, but it's naive to think that advertising doesn't filter down to children.

Coke is not, in my opinion,  a healthy snack for anyone. Period. End of story. I believe that anyone who tells you otherwise either is being paid to do so or doesn't know what a healthy snack is.

© 2011 Notes From the Cookie Jar, AllRightsReserved.

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