Coca-Cola has pledged globally not to advertise to children under 12 since 2013 and has even included its pledge in the headlines of its own press releases. It was because of this quite public vow that I was so shocked to see the world’s largest beverage company blatantly market to kids right here in my hometown of Washington, DC.
Last week, the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and Coca-Cola held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for refurbished basketball and tennis courts at Benning Park Community Center in Southeast, as a part of the Coca-Cola’s “Refreshing Community Spaces” initiative. The DC DPR’s tweets from the ceremony revealed photos of teens wearing Coca-Cola tee shirts and young children dressed as Coca-Cola cans. I was outraged at the company’s disregard of its own pledge, directly marketing to young children, and tweeted the photo out. DC DPR took down its tweet shortly thereafter.
The direct marketing of sugary beverages to kids is not to be taken lightly here in DC. Benning Park Community Center is located in Ward 7 of DC, where the population is 95 percent African American. There is a chronic disparity in the health of residents of Ward 7 compared to wealthier and whiter parts of the city. The obesity rate in the ward is 39.2 percent, almost four times as high as in Ward 2 (a majority white section of DC that includes the Georgetown neighborhood), and the diabetes incidence is 13.5 percent, more than three times that of Ward 2. The overall DC obesity rate is 23.8 percent and diabetes rate is 9.1 percent, for reference.
These figures should not be overlooked. As a recent UCS report points out, “in addition to experiencing higher diabetes prevalence rates than whites, people of color encounter more obstacles to preventing, managing, and treating this diet-related disease.” The health disparities among racial and economic groups are deeply rooted in the structure of our society and are perpetuated by government and corporate policies. Residents of Ward 7 have historically been excluded from arising economic, social, and cultural opportunities available to other parts of DC, and have long suffered from a systemic lack of services, like fewer grocery stores and health care facilities coupled with fewer affordable housing opportunities. It is critical to understand the context of the Ward 7 park to recognize the importance of Coca-Cola sticking to its advertising pledge, especially in its ‘refreshing community’ projects.
Corporate playbook enters city parks
While Coca-Cola is telling the world a story about how it is helping to ensure that families have places to gather and engage in physical activity, they are marketing their least healthy products to children. This is especially troubling considering the scientific evidence on the relationship between excessive added sugar consumption and adverse health outcomes, including diabetes and obesity.
As science continues to mount on the negative impacts of excessive sugar consumption, sugary drink sales are steadily declining and companies are employing new tactics to garner profits from their products. Coca-Cola is focused on promoting physical activity and investing in park improvement projects, similar to Benning Park Community Center, in metropolitan areas across the country, including Chicago’s South Side and Newark, New Jersey’s North Ward.
The soda company’s message to children is clear: You don’t have to worry about drinking Coke as long as you exercise. Coca-Cola has pivoted toward the concept of “energy balance” to tackle obesity. In 2015, the soda company created the Global Energy Balance Network, hiring academics who had received funding from Coca-Cola and other food companies in the past, to produce industry-friendly science to shift the dialogue on obesity away from sugar and calorie consumption and toward exercise. When the organization’s motives and funding stream were exposed, it announced that it would be halting its operations due to “resource limitations.”
In addition to shifting attention away from diet’s impact on obesity, the industry also spreads disinformation through marketing to specific demographic groups, like children, African Americans, Hispanics and low-income individuals. And companies aren’t even shy about it. In 2010, Coca-Cola’s chief marketing officer told attendees of a Nielson marketing conference that 86 percent of the growth through 2020 for the company’s youth target market would come from “multicultural” consumers, especially Hispanic populations.
By targeting these groups in particular, sugar interests take advantage of these individuals’ psychological, social and economic vulnerabilities to increase sales of products known to cause harm when ingested in excessive amounts. In the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s most recent report on the food industry’s marketing practices to children, it found that the food industry spends about a quarter of its advertising budget, roughly $1.8 billion, on youth-directed advertising, of which soda, snacks, cereals, candy, and other sugar-heavy products make up the largest percentage.
Why do they get away with it?
While companies like Coca-Cola have pledged not to market their sugary products, or even any foods and beverages, to children under 12, there are no federal standards holding them accountable. The biggest food companies participate in a voluntary Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, in which companies self-report compliance data. In its most recent progress report, several of the biggest food companies reported that they had broken their pledges not to advertise to certain age groups. And because these companies are assessing themselves, we know that their reports are only part of the story. The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s recent analysis on Coca-Cola’s marketing practices reveals that despite pledging not to advertise to children under twelve, there have been multiple instances in which they have blatantly reneged on their promises without reporting those details to the CFBAI.
Leave children out of junk food marketing
To be fair, corporations can play a responsible role in charitable causes and can help communities by providing much-needed goods and services that shrinking local government budgets can’t cover. It is irresponsible, however, for companies to exploit these opportunities for the purpose of advertising to developing minds and for partner organizations, like the DC DPR, to allow them to do so.
Coca-Cola should leave kids out of their business plan. Children are blank slates, just beginning to form opinions about the world and at the same time, forming life-long preferences for foods. Exposing kids to sugary beverages and allowing them to ‘taste the feeling’ of a sugar high due to the consumption of more than their daily limit of added sugars is instilling in them a preference with drastic health consequences. In lieu of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission mandating and enforcing marketing standards for children, the CFBAI must improve the accountability of food and beverage companies in meeting their advertising pledges. Otherwise, working to improve the health of American children is always going to be an uphill battle. All stakeholders should be involved in guiding children to enjoy food with fewer added sugars, to ‘taste the feeling’ of health, not sickness.