If you are looking for an example of strange bedfellows, look no farther than Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of Canada’s physical activity and sport program, ParticipACTION. The program’s vision is “to work with its partners to ensure a Canadian society where people are the most physically active on earth.”
Good idea, and what is one of the things physically active people do more of? Why, drink liquids, of course. And what should we encourage them to drink?
The answer depends on what you really hope the program’s outcome will be. If you are a company that sells fizzy, sweetened beverages, your answer will probably not be water, no matter how much you want to burnish your corporate responsibility image by encouraging healthy lifestyles.
So when Coca-Cola teamed up with ParticipACTION to launch Sogo Active, some eyebrows shot skyward. One pair of those eyebrows was on Hal Johnson, the BodyBreak show’s creator and host (along with Joanne McLeod).
ParticipACTION used to help fund BodyBreak, but that did not stop Johnson from Tweeting, “I am disappointed that Participaction has partnered with Coke, it doesn’t fit no matter how much money they are getting.”
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a family doctor and Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa wanted more than a 140-character response to the partnership. So he interviewed Hal Johnson for his Weighty Matters blog. Johnson had this to say about Coca-Cola’s role:
It sends out a mixed message, and it doesn’t fit with the brand and Coke gets the halo effect of the ParticipACTION brand. It’s an iconic brand and they benefit from it.
Next: Undermining the Healthy Message
We can be sure any suggestion that obesity might be fueled by sugar-sweetened beverages will be absent from the Sogo Active Web site, Facebook page or Twitter feed. In fact, any hint that health is affected by anything beyond physical activity, as important as that is, is absent from Sogo Active.
Coca-Cola is making a smart move with this partnership. The same cannot be said for ParticipACTION. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has long been a way of co-opting criticism by sponsoring the very organizations that might point fingers. As long as the two partners are sharing the same bed, any question of sugar-sweetened beverages’ having a negative impact on health will be absent from Sogo’s site or any of its campaigns. Worse yet, the implication will be that Coca-Cola is an appropriate drink for young athletes.
The argument that a lot of good things would not happen without this kind of corporate sponsorship is accurate but short-sighted. You can’t promote health by undermining it.
For a well-documented critique of the heavy social and health cost of soda companies’ CSR and cause marketing campaigns, check out “Soda and Tobacco Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns: How Do They Compare?”
ParticipACTION’s partnership with Coca-Cola is just one more way of selling our children’s health to the highest corporate bidder.
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