Badvert of the month (December): Coca-Cola

For this month’s Badvert, we have something slightly different than our usual focus on airlines, cars and fossil fuel companies. As we have directed our focus towards other harmful types of advertising in recent months (see, for example, our Emerging Issues in High-Carbon Advertising briefing), it felt particularly appropriate, close to Christmas, to look at Coca-Cola. 

Coca-Cola: an empire built on advertising

The sugary, fizzy drink that comes in cans and plastic bottles is known for its Santa Claus adverts, which have contributed to the worldwide fame of the brand, and which pop up on digital and outdoor screens at this time of year. Behind the festive magic however, is one of the world’s largest soft drinks producers and an equally colossal consumer of plastics. In spite of ending up on top of the list for being one of the world’s largest plastic polluters five years in a row, the soft drink giant was the official sponsor of the last UN climate conference, COP27, held in Egypt in November 2022.

Almost everyone can recognise the company’s famous logo and colours which have been imprinted on our brains from early childhood by repeated advertising campaigns and TV jingles

But Coca-Cola’s ads are far from innocent. Advertising has been one of the major forces behind the success of the company, having a huge impact on popular culture and society, with an annual spend of $4 billion globally to promote its products. Its relentless advertising serves to keep customers hooked on their products while now attempting to cultivate a new image of social and environmental responsibility in the face of rising public concerns about the climate and plastic pollution in particular. 

From its plastic waste, to its responsibility in contributing to childhood obesity, as well as being associated with reported human rights violations in countries like India and Colombia, Coca-Cola is a company that has built an empire whilst generating a host of issues with far-reaching public health, human rights and environmental consequences.

Coca-Cola’s plastic problem

At the start of last year’s UN climate summit, COP27 held in Egypt, Coca-Cola launched a new greenwash advertising campaign focussed on the recyclability of its bottles’ caps. The ads, seen at outdoor advertising sites in both Bristol and Birmingham, as well as on social media, were reported to the regulator in a complaint submitted by colleagues at Adfree Cities (later dismissed by the regulator).

The advert read as “Together for good” with subtitle: “Our new caps are attached for easier collection at recycling”. Adfree Cities denounced the misleading nature of Coca=Cola’s message that suggested an image of social responsibility, while putting the onus on the individual consumer and churning out 200,000 plastic bottles every minute. Coca-Cola is well aware of the rising public sentiment against plastic pollution and the growing pressure to regulate the problem.

Plastic pollution is now so prevalent that what may have seemed inconceivable decades ago is present-day reality: scientific research found microparticles of plastic in the blood system; there is a 1.6 million square metre island (three times the size of France) made up of plastic located in the Central North Pacific Ocean, and by 2050 it is expected there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean.

Coca-Cola ‘Together for good’ ad campaign complained about by Adfree Cities, November 2022

As for most environmental issues, they are systemic in nature and plastic pollution is no exception. It is having huge impacts on natural ecosystems and the climate as well as public health. In terms of carbon, plastics contribute to 3.4 percent of global greenhouse gases throughout their lifecycle with 90 percent of emissions arising from their production and conversion from fossil fuels.

In terms of wildlife, plastic is responsible for countless deaths of mammals who wash up dead on shores after ingestion, and its decomposition and release of toxic compounds into the soil air and water is directly threatening ecosystems that people depend on to survive, as well as food security as the UN warns.

Public health is another impact of plastic pollution. Recycling capacity is only limited insofar as there are facilities in place and economic incentives to do so. When that waste is not directly buried at landfill sites or burnt in incinerators, with negative public health consequences, a large part is traditionally exported to countries in the Global South who suffer greatly from the release of toxic compounds into the air and soil. Only 12 percent of the UK’s plastic household waste is recycled and 9 percent at a global level.

Junk food ad bans 

The idea to ban ads for junk food brands has gained traction over the past years, following calls from public health officials and organisations to tackle rising cases of obesity among children. What is most concerning is their direct targeting of such ads to a youth audience, something that has been denounced by various consumer rights groups.

Several countries are discussing restrictions on junk food ads towards children including AustraliaGermany, and the Netherlands, among others. In the UK a proposed ban on junk food ads before 9pm was delayed to come into effect until 2025. Polling finds that the UK public is a great supporter of such measures, with 80 percent in favour of imposing restrictions on ads on tv and online.

Meanwhile local authorities in England have taken steps to fully ban junk food ads from outdoor advertising on the sites they control. Since Transport for London’s (TfL) ban on junk food ads in 2019, which had a rapid and positive health benefit, the issue has gained popularity and the ban has been replicated across eight local councils in the UK including Haringey, Southwark, Merton, Greenwich, Bristol, Barnsley, Tower Hamlets and Luton. 

While these adverts are notoriously disastrous for their impact on public health, a ban on junk food ads would equally have beneficial consequences for the planet given the large environmental pollution and carbon impact behind these products.

Ask your local council to ban high-carbon ads

Company background: Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola is an American multinational company founded in 1892 in Atlanta. The company was based on a soft drink developed in 1886 by pharmacist John Stith Pemberton which, at the time, contained cocaine from coca leaves and caffeine from kola nuts acting together as a stimulant. Alongside its best-seller product, the company also manufactures and sells other soft drinks and syrups as well as alcoholic drinks.

Across the years, the soft drink giant acquired many other beverage companies, extending its fortune and influence across the globe. The company is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2022, Coca-Cola registered revenues of 43 million US dollars. 

Coca-Cola has faced several public scandals including on the issue of water rights at its plant in Southern Kerala (India) where the company was accused of depriving local farmers of access to water and contaminating the soil with waste sludge.

In Colombia, Coca-Cola is accused of attacking labour rights and contributing to the killings of ten trade unionists from the Sinaltrainal trade union, with the help of local paramilitary groups. Sinaltrainal filed a lawsuit against the company in a US court for assisting paramilitaries in the murder of trade unionists.

The court ruled in favour of Coca-Cola, citing a lack of evidence on the plaintiff’s case.

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