Statement at the Coca-Cola Annual Meeting of Shareowners
Josh Golin, Program Manager
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood
April 19, 2005
My name is Josh Golin. I am a proxy representing a concerned shareholder. I am also Program Manager for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), a national coalition that counters the harmful effects of marketing to children. CCFC works for the rights of children to grow up—and the rights of parents to raise them—without being undermined by commercial interests. I am withholding my votes for the directors of this board because of my concerns about how Coca-Cola’s marketing practices adversely affect the health of our children.
Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that said for the first time in two centuries, the current generation of children in America may have shorter life expectancies than their parents. The reason? The rapid rise of childhood obesity and it attendant health problems, which if left unchecked could shorten their lives by as much as five years.
What does this have to with Coca-Cola and this board of directors? Plenty. Obesity rates have risen in tandem with a startling increase in soft drink consumption. The chance that a child will be overweight increases with each daily serving of sugared soft drinks they consume. There is a growing consensus that soft drinks are contributing to health problems for children, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, and others in the public health community have called for restrictions on soft drink marketing.
And yet, as the epidemic of childhood obesity worsens, Coca-Cola is spending more money and finding new ways to market products to children in the hopes of developing lifetime brand loyalty. Coca-Cola’s guidelines for marketing to children state, “The Coca-Cola Company and its local bottling partners do not aim or direct any marketing activity from any source to children under the age of 12”, but a quick glance at some of Coke’s marketing practices demonstrate this claim simply is not true. There are Coke toys such as checker sets and cars that are designed to introduce kids as young as four to the Coca-Cola brand. Coke’s product placement is ubiquitous on American Idol, the top-rated show for children ages 2-11. Coke’s sponsorship of films such as the Harry Potter movies is clearly designed to reach young children.
And Coca-Cola markets aggressively in schools. In 2003, in response to growing concern about the presence of soft drinks in schools, Coca-Cola announced its so-called Model Guidelines for School Beverage Partnerships. These self-serving guidelines do nothing to restrict soda sales to middle and high school students. They also permit the marketing of sugar-laden “sports drinks” to younger children. The guidelines even permit the use of the Coca-Cola logo on materials promoting health and nutrition education.
In order to protect its access to children, Coca-Cola uses considerable financial clout to enlist prestigious – and financially vulnerable – nonprofit organizations as allies. All of the educational organizations that endorsed the aforementioned school guidelines received funding from Coca-Cola. In 2003, Coca-Cola gave the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry a $1 million research grant; shortly after, the AAPD’s executive director was quoted as saying the role that soda plays in developing cavities “is not clear.” Coca Coca-Cola relies on these paid allies, organizations ordinarily associated with promoting the well-being of children, to aid in their extensive lobbying efforts against policies - such as restrictions on junk food marketing – that would help combat childhood obesity.
It is difficult, however, to find anyone to defend Coca-Cola’s products or marketing practices that does not have a financial connection to the company. And not all of Coca-Cola’s potential critics are for sale. There is a growing movement to protect children from companies like Coke. If Coca-Cola doesn’t stop targeting children with potentially harmful products, the company will be forced to stop by concerned parents, healthcare professionals, policymakers, and lawyers.
It is past time for Coca-Cola to stop undermining parents’ efforts to raise healthy children and:
- Publicly acknowledge that some of Coca-Cola’s products are contributing to health problems for children.
- End all marketing aimed at children – including Coke toys, product placement, tie-ins with children’s media, and in-school marketing.
- Stop lobbying against policies that would help combat childhood obesity.