‘Share a Coke With Obesity’ Bottle Gets Real About Effects of Drinking Soda

You might not smile if a friend hands you a drink with one of these labels.
Sep 17, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Chris, Diego, Jess, Mom, Grillmaster—those are just some of the more than 1,000 names you can find on cans and bottles of Coca-Cola as part of the soda behemoth’s brilliant “Share a Coke” advertising campaign. The company has said it started the marketing effort in order to create shared moments of fun and happiness between people. And if you don’t see your name—or aren’t satisfied with being handed a can that says “Share a Coke With BFF”—you can always head to the campaign’s website and create a personalized bottle.

But what would you do if someone handed you a bottle of the sweetened, caramel-colored beverage that had “Share a Coke With Obesity” on the label?

That’s what Mike Howard, the CEO of the creative agency Daughters & Howard, inadvertently created while he was playing around with Coke’s custom label tool as part of his work for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.–based health advocacy group.

“They have a list of words they don’t allow and some they’ll let you submit for approval or rejection,” Howard told Today.com. “I submitted ‘obesity’ and never got an email back and then as we were working on [another] idea, we heard that ‘obesity’ was working. [The bottle] came a few days later in the mail.”

The CSPI then decided to create the “Share Honesty” campaign, which the video above is part of, in order to turn the spotlight on what consumers may be in store for if they drink sweetened beverages. “The ‘fun’ experience is really diabetes and obesity and heart disease,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI. “It’s not all happiness and joy as Coke would pretend.”

The video’s narrator asks viewers to go to the “Share a Coke” website and try to request labels with ailments such as diabetes, tooth decay, and obesity. “If we all demanded more honesty on Coke labels, maybe Coke would get the message,” says the narrator.

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Coca-Cola, unsurprisingly, is not a fan of the video.

“Thousands of Coca-Cola fans have created custom bottles through this program, and the ‘Share a Coke’ website has guardrails in place to help ensure a positive consumer experience,” a company spokesperson wrote in an email to TakePart. “It’s unfortunate that CSPI and others deliberately try to turn a fun experience into something negative to further their attacks on our brand.”

The video also asks viewers to “try sharing a Coke with Steven N. Blair, one of the influential scientists Coke’s reportedly been paying to shift blame for obesity away from their products.”

The name may not be familiar to most folks, but in August, The New York Times reported that Coke donated $1.5 million in 2013 to a nonprofit organization of Blair’s. Blair has now said that instead of worrying about their diets, obesity-plagued Americans would lose weight if they exercised more.

“The story claimed Coke is funding scientific research to convince people that diets don’t matter—only exercise,” Ed Hays, the chief technical officer of Coca-Cola, wrote in August in response to the Times article.“In fact, that is the complete opposite of our approach to business and well-being and nothing could be further from the truth.”

Hays wrote that the company does fund scientists such as Blair “because their type of research is critical to finding solutions to the global obesity crisis.”

Jacobson called Coke’s marketing efforts “insidious,” but he noted that critics of soda aren’t just found in health advocacy groups such as the CSPI. The pushback against soda is coming “from city and state health departments, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Heart Association,” he said.

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And, although companies such as Coca-Cola have spent “over the years, billions of dollars to promote the sale of soft drinks,” Jacobson said, consumption of carbonated sugar drinks has dropped.

Indeed, Gallup’s annual Consumption Habits poll found that 61 percent of U.S. residents say they’re staying away from regular soda, and 62 percent are avoiding diet soda. “It’s an enormous change,” said Jacobson. “They’re losing the battle.”

The CSPI’s video makes its debut at a time when the “Share a Coke” campaign is dominating social media. On Thursday, an emoji of two Coke bottles toasting made its debut on Twitter, making Coca-Cola the first brand featured in such a way on the platform. The hashtag #ShareACoke dominated the platform’s trending topics on Thursday. Meanwhile, the CSPI is asking viewers to take to social media with a #ShareHonesty hashtag.

Overall, Jacobson sees the personalized bottles as an effort to rescue sales. “I think internally they see at least in developing nations, wealthy nations—North America and Europe—as mature and declining markets. So they’re investing a billion dollars or more a year in India, China, Brazil, and Mexico because that’s where their future is.” Given the success of Mexico's soda tax in cutting consumption and growing concern from public health officials around the world about obesity and related diseases, the writing may be on the wall for sweetened beverages.