A Sugar High in the Third World

Mar 25, 2013 7:15 AM ET

By Carol Pierson Holding

When I was young, I took it as the gospel truth that Coca-Cola could eat the paint off of cars. Then my grammar school classmates reported that baby teeth dissolved in Coke. I learned my lesson: drink Coke at your own peril.

I divested my Coca-Cola stock some time ago for social responsibility reasons —Mark Bittman recounts the health dangers in his New York Times blog — and for financial reasons. I thought that with all the warnings, many of Coca-Cola’s markets were destined to decline.

I was right, for now. Starting in about 2004, sales of all sodas began to tank. More recently, regulation entered the picture, when New York’s Mayor Bloomberg tried to ban sales of fast food soft drinks over 16 ounces.

Then the breakthrough: earlier in March, Beverage Digest reported  water consumption once again exceeds soda consumption. Common sense was finally winning out over the immense marketing power of soda companies, without the lawsuits that forced other dangerous and addictive products such as liquor and cigarettes to limit their advertising and promotion. Even a former Coca-Cola marketing executive quit amid public mea culpa’s for the harm he was doing by pushing Coke in the poverty stricken pavelas in Brazil. It seemed Coke might be doomed.

So it was with some interest I read that the new head of marketing for Coca-Cola was speaking to the Harvard Business School Club of New York. His talk, called “Bringing the Fizz Back,” was promoted on the HBSCNY web site as follows:

“With all the negative news surrounding carbonated beverages, you would be led to believe the end was near for storied companies such as the Coca-Cola Company and its brethren. Yet the legendary Atlanta-based firm is thriving with a strong focus on international markets, educating consumers about obesity, and being resilient in what Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent calls ‘the reset world;’ a world where new consumer attitudes, the role of government in economic and commercial affairs, and geopolitical, economic, and demographic shifts collide.

“Clearly this is a major challenge. As the Chief Marketing Officer of the firm, Joe Tripodi is among those at the forefront trying to address these issues.

‘Coca-Cola is also in the middle of an ambitious plan to double its business by 2020. …Just how does the venerable firm plan to execute this goal? …Mr. Tripodi will talk about ‘the brand as cultural leader’ –the imperative for many brands today to take a leadership position on issues and challenges that are important to their consumers and integral to the company’s DNA.”

Hmmm…Coca-Cola as cultural leader? Mr. Tripodi’s bio tells us that he has worked in global marketing for liquor (Seagrams) and oil (Mobile Oil, now part of ExxonMobil), so he knows a thing or two about marketing dangerous, addictive products as “cultural leaders” – recall Mobil’s series of small space ads on the New York Times Op-Ed pages about their efforts to clean the environment.

One wonders if Tripodi was the one who came up with the brilliant idea of supporting educational and non-profits in minority communities, so that when and if government leaders such as Mayor Bloomberg tried to limit soda consumption, Coca-Cola would have staunch allies among minorities, as it did in New York.

But even more pernicious than pushing Coke in this country, where information about its dangers is plentiful even at the grammar school level, is Coca-Cola’s intention to addict people in the third world. I’m reminded of the movieThe Gods Must Be Crazy, where a pilot drops his Coca-Cola bottle from his plane at the feet of an African tribesman. Initially, the bottle causes conflict in the tribe, because, as the narrator tells us, “A thing they have never needed before suddenly became a necessity.” Of course, the story is about a glass bottle, not its former contents. Still, one might be forgiven for imputing this lesson: Nobody on earth is safe from Coca-Cola’s brand of cultural leadership.

Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council’s Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on nearly 7,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on nearly 7,000 companies from 135 industries in 82 countries. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.