Is This Coke’s ‘Joe Camel’ Moment?

Coca-Cola targets teens with new all-digital marketing campaign.

The soda maker is targeting the touchscreen generation. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Apr 26, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Get ’em hooked while they’re young” was long the ad strategy for cigarette makers, who over the years accumulated a trove of market data that showed the younger a smoker started smoking, the more likely he was to keep smoking—and to stick with his favorite brand. Is it far-fetched to think Coke is doing the same thing?

The ad world is going fairly gaga over the soda maker’s newest campaign, an intensely teen-targeted, social-media-heavy, smartphone-centric initiative called “The AHH Effect.” From the standpoint of the Mad Men of the 21st century, this is big news.

As a senior marketing exec for Coca-Cola North America tells Adweek, “Very importantly, this is going to mark the first all-digital campaign by Coca-Cola. And critically, this signals a whole new way in which we’ve decided to create marketing content.”

The exec adds: “Mobile phones are [teens’] lifelines. It’'s not that they don’t watch TV. But mobile is their first screen.”

Well, The AHH Effect certainly seems to pass the teen test: I don’t get it. I decided to check it out, but being 39, I’m definitely aware that I not only fall far outside Coke’s target market here, but I’m getting uncomfortably close to the upper end of the age bracket that most advertisers see as lucrative.

I tried it on my computer, not my smartphone, which already makes me seem like my grandma giving up on the cable remote. There was a screen filled with a bunch of smiling (sneering?) bubbles, the color of Coke, making oddly pornographic sounds—it seemed like some sort of trying-to-be-hip animated science flick, like “Get to Know Your Colon.”

I clicked around; nothing seemed to happen. More moaning bubbles, which somewhat horrifyingly started to look like the devilish doppelgangers of the famed Scrubbing Bubbles. Suddenly I was taken to a “game” (I have no idea how). This was something along the lines of, “can you tell the difference between a regular can of Coke and a mini can?” You’re shown photos of cans of Coke held by various disembodied hands, and you have to pick: “Regular” or “Mini.”

I got three out of six right.

This is revolutionary marketing?

Of course, as Adweek points out, “modern teens” have “famously short attention spans.” I guess so.

But as innocently idiotic as it all seems, there’s also an insidiousness about it. I’m by no means the first to compare the soda industry today to cigarette makers 20 or 30 years ago—though clearly at this point, any sane person has to admit that soft drinks can’t be considered as addictive nor as deadly as cigarettes.

Still, the parallels are creepy. Even as the cigarette industry was coming under heavy fire, dragging its feet before accepting the overwhelming science documenting the public health impact of their products, Joe Camel continued to loiter and loaf around.

Today, soda makers have been similarly prone to ostrich syndrome when it comes to acknowledging the connection between their products and the nation’s obesity epidemic. Coke did launch a quasi–public service campaign related to obesity earlier this year, but the takeaway seems to be that drinking Coke is OK so long as you walk/run/bike/or even laugh [!!] those extra calories off.

Yet according to the Harvard School of Public Health, the average soda size has more than tripled since the 1950s, with Americans getting almost 10 percent of their daily calories from sugary drinks. Tellingly, those drinks are the top source of calories for teens, at 226 calories per day.

And in one study cited by Harvard, researchers found that for each additional 12-ounce soda children drink each day, the odds of becoming obese increased by a whopping 60 percent.