Tis the Season for Marketing Coke to Kids

santa Coke commercial

What is the first sign that the holidays are around the corner? The first decorations going up in the shops and supermarkets? When the radio stations start playing holiday-themed music?

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For many of us, it’s the moment when we see that familiar fleet of twinkling Coca‑Cola trucks make their way across our television screen to bring light and joy (and plenty of sugary Coke!) to the masses.  Though the Christmas themed trucks are a fairly recent tradition, Coca-Cola has been associating their products with Santa Claus and the holiday season since the 1930’s.  Which is why it seems ridiculous that the company claims not to market their products to children.

Earlier this year, the Coca-Cola Company released a frenzy of media activity surrounding their global plan to tackle obesity.  This included a promise not to advertise to children under 12 anywhere in the world.  Coca-Cola had already claimed to have banned marketing to the under-12 demographic in the United States.

While Coke received some praise for these efforts, most health advocates weren’t buying it.  After the release of the campaign, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff spotted an ad from Coke in the June 17th edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which stated:

For over 50 years we’ve adhered to a company policy that prohibits advertising soft drinks to children… we’ve recently extended this policy to include all forms of media, including broadcast, print, the web and beyond.

Coke Ad

Here is one of Coke’s latest forms of broadcast media, which by the terms of their policy, they must believe does not appeal children:

Does Coke honestly think children under 12 aren’t going to be enticed by an animated commercial about Santa Claus? Of course they don’t.  On the contrary, this is the perfect example of a commercial Coke knows WILL target children, but the company could easily make a claim that it is designed for older children and adults.  While many adults do enjoy Santa, you cannot deny that the jolly guy in the red suit and the magic of the North Pole predominantly appeals to children.

The holiday season also provides the perfect environment for pushing Coke’s family of polar bears in their advertising.  In fact, the following was found in Coke’s online store as part of their holiday gift guide:

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Don’t branded toys count as marketing? While Coke might be able to claim that this stuffed bear is made for adults, the company actually goes out of its way to RECOMMEND the toy for “little ones” age 3 and up.  Wouldn’t this fit that part about ‘beyond’ in their ban on child targeted marketing?

Even the packaging itself is being designed in a way that could appeal to children.  For the last few years, Coke has used the holiday season to sell ornament-shaped bottles of their products, once again starring cartoon versions of their famous family of polar bears.

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The food industry spends nearly 2 billion per year in the U.S. marketing to kids, advertising mostly unhealthy products.  Based on the media coverage, it might appear that the Coca-Cola company isn’t a part of this public health problem, but their actions continue to show otherwise.  If Coke wants to use Christmas to sell their products, they are entitled to that.  But, claiming that this marketing isn’t used to persuade children to associate Coke with the happiness and joy of the holiday season is shameful.

A Positive Spin on Food Marketing to Kids

Yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) have teamed up with Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) in a two-year agreement to help promote fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to kids.

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According to PHA’s website:

The agreement allows PMA’s community of growers, suppliers and retailers to take advantage of the power and influence of the Sesame Street brand without a licensing fee, using characters like Big Bird, Elmo and Abby Cadabby to help convey messages about fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sesame Street characters could be showing up on produce as early as mid-2014.

In her statement, the First Lady cited a recent study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine conducted by researchers at Cornell University. Researchers gave children a choice between eating an apple, a cookie, or both and most kids chose the cookie. Not surprisingly, when the researchers put Elmo stickers on the apples and let the kids select again, the number of kids who chose the apple nearly doubled.

Most often, we see food companies enticing kids with characters on junk food products like sugary cereals and snacks.  Massive marketing budgets allow the food manufacturers to do this, and it works.

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Finally, these same marketing techniques will be used to help parents, instead of undermining them, making it easier to get kids to eat more fruits and veggies.  How great will it be to see beloved children’s characters like Big Bird and Elmo promoting apples and bananas instead of real fruit imposters like Pop-tarts and Popsicles?

Will efforts like this be enough to counteract the billions spent on marketing junk food to children?  Probably not at first, but it is a nice step towards leveling the playing field.  While policies to curb the relentless marketing of unhealthy products have been stymied by Big Food lobbyists, I have to applaud creative ideas like this that can work in congruence with future policy efforts.

Some food policy experts, like Marion Nestle, question the ethicality of marketing to children in any capacity – even if it’s for products we know are good for them.  Studies have shown that children are unable to distinguish marketing from entertainment until at least age 8.  But if marketing such as this poses no harm, and actually serves to benefit children, shouldn’t we be all for it? What do you think?

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