It was fascinating to see Coca Cola virtually recant recently. Just as fascinating was the reaction to the news from Coca Cola HQ that yes, there is a connection between sugary drinks and obesity. Coke would now like to make things better and help us to do it. It has begun by encouraging us to drink smaller portions and take exercise. So who is really responsible for what we eat and drink? It’s far too easy to slam a corporate as the villain - and we’ve been on both sides of this divide- and make out the public to be innocents who just fell into a trap. Coca Cola is pretty much linked in with the rise and rise of advertising. It was a time of change, of post-war expansion, of consumerism and of choice. And let’s face it sometimes a glass of Coke is as good as it gets. But the problem is that not all of society can make the judgement that Coca Cola is not for everyday and not for large drinking episodes.
Not all of society can see that exercise is important or perhaps they can but they ignore it. So in these situations, a lot of people will go into bat for those who filled their supermarket trollies with Coke. It’s a tough one to decipher. Because you can argue that nobody forced them. On the other hand, we all know the strength of advertising that is done on a scale like Coca Cola’s, a product that was inextricably linked with enjoyment.
There is talk of Coke making healthy drinks. As a brand it has the power to do most things. But it is foolish to lay the blame for an obesity epidemic at the door of companies like Coca Cola. If you do that you take away personal responsibility and, by default, you hand authority to corporates to control our lifestyles. So let’s have some sanity here.
Yes it’s good Coke is aware of its effect on people who may be unable to understand if something is not good for them in large doses. But equally let’s remember that the food we eat and the way we live is a result of many things – consumerism, technology, poverty, wealth (yes both) and a society which does not eat to live but increasingly lives to eat. There is responsibility for all here and the inescapable fact is that no matter how many companies tell people to eat and drink responsibly or try to direct consumer choices, this is not a simple problem and one that goes way beyond the superficial. You are talking about getting into the psyches of individuals. A company can’t do that. And we wouldn’t want it to.
As a former Greenpeace alumni I am also on their advisory board in Italy. Last weekend I was in Rome for their annual meeting. Lots of fascinating discussions ensued about Italian politics (of course), the deterioration of political life in particular and the way Greenpeace saw this as impacting on their particular agenda. Now usually Greenpeace takes an attack position on the brand, that is they see the negative impact of a brand, robustly research the company and then use stunts, media and political pressure to get them to the negotiating table.
Sadly, this cannot happen in the current environment, one where the politics appear to be closer to North Korea than a developed European country. Greenpeace told me about their brand attack on ENEL, Italy’s major electricity provider.
With rigorous and detailed research (essential if you employ these kind of tactics), Greenpeace has shown
- ENEl is the biggest producer of CO2, not just in Italy but in EUROPE
- carbon kills: people exposed to carbon extraction from Enel die prematurely, one death a day in Italy is due to ENEL’s bad practices
- 1,8 environmental damage is inflicted in Europe every year
So what happened? The media ignored it. Greenpeace’s media traction in Italy is practically zero despite its big support base. 92,000 emails sent to political party members but no replies. The media have no appetite to go after ENEL or most likely the politicians who support it. So they turned their backs. The fallout was greater for Greenpeace, infighting, the destruction of relationships. This was a high price to pay but it wasn’t a mistake so much as the legacy of trying to operate in an environment that has shifted massively. Is it time for new alliances, campaigns and tactics? What do you think?