Coca-Cola is under fire for trying to convince teenagers and moms that its sugary drinks are healthy, despite concerns that they contribute to childhood obesity.
The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH) analyzed internal documents from two Coca-Cola ad campaigns, one from the 2016 summer Olympic games in Rio and a 2013 brand campaign. The organization discovered that the brand was largely targeting the two groups to its products to shift their attitudes.
For the 2013 ads, which were part of Coke’s “Movement Is Happiness” campaign, the internal documents stated that the goal was to “increase Coke brand health scores with teens.” The IJERPH said Coke was “explicit in its intent” to stamp out opposition and build allies with journalists to “negate negative media coverage.”
In the 2016 campaign for the summer Olympics in Rio the IJERPH said Coke targeted teens and moms by enlisting young social media influencers to promote the products. It cited a trade publication that praised Coke’s effectiveness of the campaign because it reached more than 20 million teenagers.
“The large number of children targeted and reached by Coke as part of their PR campaigns is a serious concern from a public-health perspective,” the IJERPH said in its paper, which also produced by advocacy group US Right to Know.
A recent study predicted that 250 million school-aged children and adolescents in the world will be classified as obese by 2030. In the United States, the percentage of children and teens affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s, according to a October 2018 study.
Gary Ruskin, the study’s co-author and the co-director of the organization, said in a press release that the internal documents show that the Coke “tried to use public relations to manipulate teens into thinking that sugary soda is healthy, when really it increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and other ills.”
In a statement to CNN Business, Coca-Cola said the report focused on ad campaigns that came out before a 2016 initiative that stopped funding physical activity programs for youths.
“At Coca-Cola, we recognize that too much sugar isn’t good for anyone. That’s why, around the world, we are reducing the amount of sugar in our products and taking other steps to help people reduce their sugar intake,” a spokesperson said. “We have long had a global policy of not marketing to children under 12, and all of our marketing campaigns are designed to comply with that policy.”
Coke previously sparked controversy with emails between employees and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That ignited questions about just how extensive of a relationship the soda company has had with the nation’s public health agency.
The main concern behind Coca-Cola’s partnership with the CDC is that the soda company may try to downplay how some of its sweetened soda products are leading sources of added sugar in the American diet.