Seemingly forgotten are the days when the words “Cola Wars” implied Coca-Cola and Pepsi taste tests and new-fangled formulations. (Who can forget the New Coke marketing “train wreck?”) These days, however, the hunters—mostly for each other’s market share to quench consumers’ collective thirst—have become the hunted.
Viewed as a prime contributor to America’s obesity epidemic, the beverage industry is under assault like never before. Legislation to ban large-sized soft drinks in Legislation to ban large-sized soft drinks in New York City is slated to go into effect in March 2013, although not before what’s likely to be an epic legal battle. Even artificially sweetened diet sodas aren’t receiving a “free pass” here. They’re damned for stimulating consumers’ cravings for more sugary foods and containing potentially carcinogenic artificial sweeteners.
Now, food-and-nutrition-advocacy watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (the folks who once vividly coined the term “heart attack on a plate” for artery-clogging fettucine Alfredo), which has long had the soft-drink makers in their crosshairs, lands perhaps its most effective blow to soda pop—at least in the court of public opinion. And let’s recognize another truth, too, CSPI is devastatingly effective in that forum.
Its latest effort reinforces this fact more than ever: a newly released, animated cartoon of soda-swigging, increasingly corpulent and diabetes-stricken polar bears. (Who did the CSPI have in mind with that?) What begins charming and whimsically takes a dark, deeply disturbing twist—and a chainsaw amputation is nothing if not dark and disturbing—to punctuate its message, which includes factoids about soft drinks’ various health risks. And that message is being delivered in this digital-media age when video goes viral at warp speed: in just five days, nearly 1.5 million people on YouTube alone have already viewed “The Real Bears,” as the cartoon short with whimsical soundtrack called “Sugar” by Jason Mraz and MC Flow, is called.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi are stepping up, too—we’ll see how effectively. Through one effort, in concert with the American Beverage Association , the soda makers are launching a pilot “Calories Count” vending-machine initiative next year in Chicago and San Antonio, where municipal workers are participating in wellness competitions. The front of soda machines will provide patrons with nutritional information and offer recommendations for lower-calorie options. If successful, the test program could expand across the nation. The coming weeks and months are going to be interesting from legal and reputation management standpoints. Even non-soda drinkers are left wondering whether beverage consumption is the domain of government—at any level—to legislate. Is soft-drink prohibition, in any form, justifiable and, more importantly, can it alone effectively contain a runaway obesity epidemic?