Vitaminwater Healthy? Coca-Cola Might Not Get Off Cheap on a Settlement Over Its Marketing

The soda company tried to settle a lawsuit on the cheap, but one advocacy group isn’t having it.

(Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Oct 23, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Coca-Cola’s no good, terribly bad couple of weeks appear to be dragging on. The company’s shares tumbled more than they had in the past six years after Coke announced disappointing third-quarter sales this week. The bad news must have been hard to swallow for the soda giant, considering that just last month, Coke was reveling in the success of its summer-long “Share a Coke” marketing campaign, which offered fresh hope that personalized cans could help reverse an 11-year downward drift in soda sales.

Now the world’s largest beverage maker has a revived lawsuit to contend with.

The soda maker was so close to sweeping away the class-action lawsuit, which alleged that the company deceived consumers in marketing its sugary Vitaminwater as healthy. A spate of suits filed in various states had been consolidated into one big lawsuit in Ohio, and in July, the plaintiffs’ attorneys reached a relatively cheap $1.2 million settlement with Coke. That is, until one public advocacy group stepped in to say not so fast.

The nonprofit group Truth in Advertising is crying foul, and this week it formally requested permission from the court to object to the settlement. It’s not so much that $1.2 million is, essentially, pocket change for Coke—the company’s sales were almost $12 billion last quarter alone—but that the money will go to cover attorneys’ fees. Not a cent goes back to consumers. Even more troubling, Coke won’t be required to change all that much in terms of its deceptive marketing.

According to Truth in Advertising, “the settlement doesn’t stop Coca-Cola from continuing to call the drink vitaminwater, using the slogan ‘nutrient enhanced water beverage,’ or using health-conscious names such as ‘defense’ and ‘revive’ for its drinks.”

What’s the problem with that? In addition to a smattering of namesake vitamins, your average 20-ounce bottle of Vitaminwater contains 31 grams of sugar. Sure, that’s half the amount that’s in an equivalent amount of Coke, but it’s still the equivalent of guzzling seven teaspoons of sugar in one sitting. Meanwhile, nearly every major health organization is recommending we consume 10 teaspoons or fewer of added sugar per day.

If you think that’s shocking, wait until you get a load of Coke’s defense. Apparently, the company didn’t even try to contend that a product it markets with suspiciously medicine-ized labels, with names such as Power-C, Essential, and Revive—a product called Vitaminwater, for crying out loud—is healthy. Coke pretty much argues that you’d be an idiot to think Vitaminwater is good for you.

In court filings, Coke’s lawyers flat-out state that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

For its part, Truth in Advertising is agitating for a more generous settlement, as well as more far-reaching changes in how Coke markets what is essentially sugar water. Meanwhile, another, similar suit concerning Vitaminwater is waiting in the wings, filed back in 2009 by the public advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.