How Coke might help cure obesity

Coca-Cola has an interesting symbolic presence the world of public health.

Its delivery system is the envy of vaccine programs: the committed global health workers who’ve trekked for days through harsh and inhospitable lands to reach even the most distant communities are likely to find a refreshing, cold Coke already waiting for them at the village store.

For those who focus on non-communicable chronic diseases (NCD), (regular) Coke is the scourge that is providing the extra calories that fuels the obesity epidemic. Many experts believe that eliminating the calories contained in a single, 16oz serving of regular Coke from daily diet would be more than enough to revert the trend towards rising obesity and return average weight in the population back to where it was 30 years ago. 

But the symbolic presence of Coca-Cola in US culture and politics is perhaps even more interesting, and the resulting dynamics could have some unexpected consequences in terms of population health.

The “New Coke” strategy of 1985 has become a hallmark case of a marketing blunder. The problem was that the decision was made by focusing solely on consumer preferences during blind-taste trials, but failed to consider that people have come to develop an intimate, personal relationship to Coke and it’s familiar taste. The company received thousands of phone calls and letters, and some people reacted as if they had lost a member of the family.

During this year’s Super Bowl, 25 years later, Coke seems to have made another marketing blunder with its ad where a classic, patriotic, All-American song was sung in different languages by people all over the world. It sparked deep outrage among many who felt that it was an un-American travesty to suggest such national symbols could be sung in foreign languages (or something along those lines…)

The way I see it, the message in the Coke commercial and the reactions it generated are both expressions of the same ideology… the problem just seems to be that something got lost in translation between Wallstreet and Mainstreet (if you’ll permit the pun).  But in any case, many of the patriots who saw the ad were so offended and outraged that they’ve sworn never to drink Coke again.

I think there’s a fat chance they’ll stick to their promise (yup, I’m having fun with these), but if they do, the public health community owes some gratitude to the advertising specialists who came up with the ad. (And perhaps so do the union leaders in developing countries whose murders are allegedly sponsored by that corporation–according this PBS report.).

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