Some Things Don’t Go Better With Coke

Here are some things that don’t go better with Coke: science, medicine, and education.

A few weeks ago I received the following email from an administrator at my son’s New York City public middle school:

Hello Everyone,

Our School is currently working to earn points through Coke Rewards. Coke is granting double points from February 1-7. Coke rewards are on coke products such as: Coke, Diet Coke, Coke zero, Sprite, Dasani, Powerade, Barq’s, Fanta, mello yello, minute maid, Pibb, vault & fresca. The coke rewards codes are on the caps of bottles, the bottoms of cans or on the inside packaging for cases of drinks.

Go to:

Then search for our school by zip code or state.  Click “Donate Points Now” and enter the amount you’d like to donate.

If this is complicated send us the codes and we will handle it. Thank you for your help.

I don’t want to pick on my son’s school’s embattled administrators. It can’t be easy working for the NYC Board of Education in the midst of a recession and a budget crisis. But there is something quite repugnant about a school official reciting a list of Coke products in a desperate attempt to reduce a budget shortfall.

Last year I wrote about the disgraceful arrangement between Coke and the NHLBI that permits Coke to display a red dress and a red heart on Diet Coke cans. Now there’s a powerful editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by Yoni Freedhoff and Paul Hébert that shows just how dangerous these kind of partnerships can be. Why does industry want to partner with charities?

For the food industry, partnerships with health charities and health sector organizations are alluring. Doing so buys corporations credibility, ties brands to the positive emotions attributed to their partnered organization and helps buy consumer loyalty — all good for shareholders.

But there’s more than “positive emotions” at work. Here’s how Freedhoff and Hébert reveal how these arrangements work in the real world:

Partnerships also help with corporate lobby efforts. For instance, Coca-Cola CEO Sandy Douglas leveraged the company’s relationship with the American Academy of Family Physicians to help make the case that soda taxes were unnecessary. Save the Children, an organization aiming to positively change the lives of children, was initially a staunch supporter of soda taxes. Recently, the organization withdrew its support, saying that support of the soda taxes did not fit the way Save the Children works. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that it is seeking a grant from Coca-Cola and has accepted a $5 million grant from PepsiCo.

Finally, I completely agree with Freedhoff and Hébert that we really shouldn’t blame the corporations here.

By definition, corporate spending must serve to increase shareholder value — a transparent fiduciary requirement that should encompass philanthropic efforts.

The real blame here belongs to the charities:

Health organizations, even when desperate for money or resources, should avoid co-branding with the food industry. At the very least, partnerships should comprise unconditional arm’s-length grants with clauses limiting how corporations use health organization brands. Otherwise, health promotion goals will be compromised by helping to promote unhealthy brands.

Hat Tips: Howard Brody and Gary Schwitzer.

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