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John Hopkins

Deceptive Marketing — Is Coca-Cola taking a page book from the tobacco industry?

» Written by // January 23, 2017 // ,

Coca-Cola has been called out in California for deceptively advertising is sugar-saturated sodas so it can sell more of them.

A 39-page lawsuit filed in San Francisco makes 13 claims against the iconic beverage brand under unfair-competition and false-advertising laws. It also seeks to enjoin the company from further misleading marketing tactics.

“Coca-Cola, the leading manufacturer and supplier in the world of sugar-sweetened beverages, deceives consumers about their health impact,” the lawsuit states. “It does so independently, and also with the assistance of and through statements made by the American Beverage Association, a trade organization which Coca-Cola funds and materially directs.”

Does the legal language ring a bell? Sound familiar? Strike a chord? It should. The claims brought by The Praxis Project, whose mission is to build healthier communities by effecting social change, have been compared to those against the tobacco industry.

black drink (cola) and donuts and sugar over lettuce over white background

“Although Defendants have publicly pledged allegiance to objective scientific criteria, they have instead represented falsely that sugar-sweetened beverages are not scientifically linked to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, and have waged an aggressive campaign of disinformation about the health consequences of consuming sugar-sweetened beverages,” according to the litigation.

Attorney Maia Kats, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which advocates for healthier food, said Coca-Cola’s “campaign of disinformation to cast doubt on the science connecting sugar-sweetened beverages to obesity, and obesity-related diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” is no different from Big Tobacco’s “campaign of disinformation to cast doubt on the science connecting cigarettes to lung cancer and other diseases.”

The U.S. government’s prosecution of Big Tobacco finally came to a head when a federal judge ruled cigarette manufacturers had to admit they purposefully and strategically misled the public about the health risks of smoking, a practice that, for decades, put consumers in danger.

“By ensuring that consumers know that Defendants have misled the public in the past on the issue of secondhand smoke in addition to putting forth the fact that a scientific consensus on this subject exists, Defendants will be less likely to attempt to argue in the future that such a consensus does not exist,” U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler wrote in the 2012 memorandum opinion.

For Coca-Cola, its fate has yet to be writ. Edward Richards, of Louisiana State University’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center, said the drink maker will lose its request to dismiss the case – the company called the lawsuit “legally and factually meritless,” which will give the plaintiffs an opportunity to amass damning evidence during discovery.

“If they get discovery, it would allow them access to documents between the ABA and Coke that may show that they’ve been plotting,” Richards told Forbes in an article titled “Even If It Fails, Lawsuit Accusing Coca-Cola Of Consumer Deception Could Yield Benefits For Health Advocates.” “Remember, the tobacco litigation (filed by state attorneys general against the tobacco industry for deceptive and fraudulent marketing, targeting children, and conspiracy to conceal the health effects of smoking) came up with a settlement which generated money and some changes in tobacco industry behavior.”

TobaccoFreedom.org, a group dedicated to reducing the smoking epidemic by educating the public about the substance, dug up a document stamped “confidential” from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company that laid out an elaborate advertising plan depicting scenarios in which smoking might be seen as sexy. In one of the scenarios, “Lisa” is in search of a cigarette on a Saturday night in a downtown club as Nirvana plays on the sound system. The advertisement reads:

Lisa’s looking to bum a smoke. She saunters up to the bar in her ripped Levi’s and vintage motorcycle jacket and looks at the bartender. “Harvey, got an extra cigarette?” Harvey reaches into the chest pocket of his black tee-shirt and pulls out a Camel. Before she can place the cigarette to her lips, the flame of a Zippo flashes in front of her.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company coined a phrase for the campaign: Trend Influence Marketing. Trend Influence Marketing abandons conventional campaigns that put products directly in front of consumers and instead positions them as trend-making and trend-setting. Whoever the executive was who wrote the internal memo in 1994 took an unabashed approach.

“In today’s over-saturated advertising assault on the mind and senses of a cigarette smoker, it’s hard for anyone to make a conscious decision for any product, new or old, repackaged or classic,” the memo states. “How do we reach the hardened, twenty-something market-wary consumer?”

It continues, “Shoving products in the face of the consumer is no longer the successful way to infiltrate this market. Today’s ‘Generation X’ consumer is most influenced by what he or she sees in the hands of friends, not by some stiff riding a horse in a magazine advertisement.”

In another turn of events 21 years later, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, a subsidiary of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, was singled out by the Food and Drug Administration for marketing its American Spirit brand as “natural” and “additive-free.” In fact, the cigarettes contain as many, if not more, chemicals than other packs and are far from being natural or additive-free.

“It is your responsibility to ensure that your tobacco products and all related labeling and / or advertising comply with each applicable provision of the FD&C [Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic] Act and FDA’s implementing regulations,” the agency wrote in a 2015 warning letter. “Failure to ensure full compliance with the FD&C Act may result in FDA initiating further action without notice, including, but not limited to, civil money penalties, criminal prosecution, seizure, and / or injunction.”

As if taking a cue from Big Tobacco, Coca-Cola developed messaging that purports sugary drinks hydrate the body (they do the opposite), it is OK to consume sugary drinks if they are balanced with exercise (it is not) and the calories in sugary drinks count toward nutrition (even though they have no nutritional value.) The lawsuit, filed in January 2017, has commanded a ton of press, including a Bloomberg article titled “Coca-Cola, ABA Accused of Tobacco-Like Deception in Lawsuit.”

“Coca-Cola Co. was sued by activists who compare the beverage giant’s advertising tactics to the tobacco industry’s past efforts in minimizing the health effects of its products and targeting children to replenish the ranks of its customers,” the news agency reports.


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