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Not OK: Deconstructing Coke’s Visual Culture Of Deception

With a new ad campaign, Coca-Cola is trying to portray itself as a leader in the war on obesity. Here's why we should be suspicious.

Open Happiness

If there’s one thing the marketing folks at Coca-Cola excel at, it’s making us feel really good. And whether it’s polar bears sipping soda under an arctic sky ablaze with aurora, or Elton John belting the virtues of his favorite soft drink to Humphry Bogart, that mysterious sense of well-being washing over you during a Coke commercial seems always to exceed the mere satisfaction derived from downing a cold, syrupy, effervescent beverage.

No, in that minute or two, you’re not just feeling good about consuming a specific product, you’re feeling good about everything — your life, your neighbors, your job, the fuzzy critters and wild colors dancing across your screen, the entire universe.

The company’s most recent ad campaign, which aims to demonstrate Coke’s commitment to battling obesity, is certainly no exception. As is evinced by their Beatles-esque titles, “Coming Together” and “Be OK”, the television and YouTube spots are as much about invoking a vague and general sense of optimism in viewers as they are about about listing specific things Coke is doing to help America make healthy choices. Trouble is, when it comes to the relationship between sweet drink consumption and physical fitness, there’s not much to be optimistic about.

(Plus, do we actually believe a gargantuan multinational corporation really cares about us?)

Some Facts

Before delving into an analysis of how elements of the new commercials combine to mislead us, we should look at a few items from a list compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health:

1. Although the “Coming Together” ad emphasizes new, “portion-controlled” beverage containers, the last half-century has seen a marked swelling of sugary drink sizes. Whereas standard bottles were 6.5 ounces in the 1950s, in the spring of 2011, Coca-Cola unveiled a 42-ouncer, which boasts 500 calories! (Cleverly, Coke has divided this calorie figure into five servings of 100 on the nutrition label.) And then, of course, there’s 7-Eleven’s suite of cheaply-refillable “Gulp” cups.

Top of a soda can, macro lens

Photo: Omar Bariffi (Flickr)

Coke's new commercials -- "Coming Together" and "Be OK" -- premiered on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively

2. Simply put, habitually consuming lots of sugar is bad for you. In addition to being closely-linked with childhood and adult obesity (especially in those genetically predisposed to become obese), regularly drinking sugar has also been found to elevate people’s risk for developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and gout.

By Coke’s own admission, even the salubrious-sounding Vitaminwater line isn’t healthy. In response to a suit brought against the company by the Center for Science in the Public Interest charging Vitaminwater had been promoted with unsubstantiated assertions as to the products’ healthiness, Coke’s lawyers responded by saying no reasonable person would have believed the claim!

3. All things being equal, less sugar leads to improved health. Reducing the amount of soda, sports drinks and juice you consume can aid in weight-loss.

Mixed Signals

As Forbes contributor Jeff Stier has noted, the narration of “Coming Together” is “scientifically accurate” and even explicitly points out that “if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.” The question is, then, if Coke isn’t lying with its words here, where’s the problem?

What Stier’s commentary misses is everything else that’s being communicated visually. Indeed, due to how cognition works, presentation is often every bit as important as what’s presented, and this is precisely where the problem lies. If you watch closely, you’ll see “Coming Together” is a relentless imagistic barrage that boasts several dozen cuts in two minutes, including the epileptic succession of portraits immediately following a white-coated scientist caricature and a beautifully emptied stevia pouch.

Among the scenes are snippets of classic commercials to arouse nostalgia, a beachy actor throwing spent bottles into a recycling bin emblazoned with a Coke logo, time-lapse traffic in Washington D.C., a cute kid at the doctor, tons of appetizing soda containers, and miles of smiles. Everyone is stoked to be alive, and nearly everyone is in good physical shape.

“Be OK”, Not Okay

“Be OK” is more sanguine still, treating the 140 calories in an average Coke can as a sort of currency people can spend on doing awesome things like laughing, hanging out with golden retrievers and clubbing.

The desired effect of all this is three-fold. First, we’re supposed to think Coca-Cola very serious about working with the U.S. citizenry to combat the ill effects of poor diets, even though the company has spent tens of millions to lobby against increasing taxes on its unhealthy beverages in recent years. Second, we’re not supposed to think about just how bad American health has become. By hiding images of obesity, Coke helps us forget about it. And third, we’re supposed to want one of those boldly-colored, well-designed and well-framed cans in our hand as soon as possible.

Certainly the role of personal responsibility in tackling the obesity epidemic should not be downplayed. No one forces us to shove bills into office or school vending machines everyday, or to spend huge chunks of our free time lounging around watching TV and cradling tablet devices. Still — whether it’s misleading “natural” food, “green” shampoo packaging or “healthy” drink commercials — making sound choices is made much more difficult by crafty advertising.

We would do well to be wary of marketers’ sleights of hand.

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Ben Alford

Ben Alford works in Indiana Public Media's online dimension and holds an M.A. from Indiana University Bloomington's History and Philosophy of Science department. When not vegetating in front of a computer screen or geeking out over a good book, he can found outside exploring.

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