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Two tales of Coke and ethics

Coke’s been in the news again in the last few days. For ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reasons.

First, the company was censured by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, who took a pop at the world’s biggest brand by saying some recent ads it has run, according to AP, “might have given consumers a misleading impression”.

The Sydney Morning Herald took a more robust approach, leading with the headline: “Coca-Cola busted for big fat rotten lies”.

In brief, last year Coke issued a “Motherhood & Myth-Busting” advertising campaign, which featured Aussie actor Kerry Armstrong. The ads purported to tackle ‘myths’ about Coke contributing to obesity, teeth rot and overly-caffeinated children.

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission said it was “immediately concerned about the misleading messages” and pushed Coke to publish corrective advertisements across most of Australia’s newspapers.

Coke said the whole thing was unintentional. But AP reported, rather damningly, that:

“”Coke’s messages were totally unacceptable, creating an impression which is likely to mislead that Coca-Cola cannot contribute to weight gain, obesity and tooth decay,” the ACCC said in a statement.”

Ouch.

Coke, meanwhile appears somewhat in denial about the whole thing, saying, according to AP that: “This process has reinforced in our minds that even where advertising messages are well-intentioned, it is important to consider the overall impression that the messages may convey”.

Well-intentioned? That depends on whose intentions we are talking about!

Coke has also been in the news today for taking a long-mooted stake in eco and health friendly smoothie maker Innocent. Apparently the firm has bought a 10-20% stake in the business for £30 million, according to the Guardian.

This will help Innocent expand, and Coke diversify. I chatted with Richard Reed of Innocent about the seeming inevitability for ethical brands to sell out or sell stakes to big companies a few years ago. We discussed in particular how Stonyfield Farm had structured their deal with Danone, to avoid the situation Ben & Jerry’s found themselves in with Unilever post-sale. Reed had some interesting ideas on how it could be done and retain integrity, it will be fascinating to watch how these turn out.

These two stories about Coke sum up the contradictions inherent in big companies in modern times. Big established firms with businesses rooted in the pre-sustainability era want to defend the “old practices” (flogging drinks bad for health in this case), whilst getting into the “new” areas of more sustainable products, such as smoothies.

The transition from increasingly-perceived “bad” products to “better” ones is inevitably going to have some big bumps in the road, as Coke is finding out.

Their Australian ads do seem unbelievably crass though. You would have thought Coke had been beaten up enough times by campaigners to be smarter than that.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    I think the Aussie Coke ads say more about the state of green marketing and PR in Australia. As someone who has returned home after 12 years working in the UK on enviro communications I am quite shocked at the lack of progress here in relation to ethical claims whether green or social. I doubt there was a senior marketing exec in Coke Oz or their agency who even considered these ads should be red flagged. There’s much to do in terms of education downunder – in green or ethical marketing AND in terms of real CSR traction within corporates. And I’m talking about moving from corporate philanthrophy being the focus to how you do business being the focus of CSR initiatives.

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