Yes, it’s true. Since childhood, the Coca Cola bears commercials have been one of my favorite parts of the holidays. And the movement in some corners of the public health scene to make Coke get rid of them are a bit of a bummer to me for two reasons..
But first, let’s be clear: I hardly ever drink Coke. In the last five years, the handful of times I’ve drunk a regular soda were because 1. I was running the middle leg of a 100 mile relay in the Florida keys in the summertime and 2. I was having hypoglycemia. I’m also not a brand advocate (though I do prefer it to Pepsi), and they don’t pay me to write or tweet nice things about them. I simply like the Polar Bears. I also love the Budweiser Clydesdales, but I don’t drink Bud.
Reason 1: They’re cute
That’s it. I think they’re cute. A holiday without cartoon polar bears seems sad. Maybe if bears appeared in more places (like they apparently do in Ireland) I’d feel differently.
Reason 2: Attacking the cute brand animals misses the larger picture
In one of my public health classes a few years ago, we were assigned a group discussion about the best way to “make Ronald McDonald go the way of Joe Camel.” And I remember, to the annoyance of the professor whose pet project that was, the consensus among the students was “is Ronald McDonald really why kids like McDonalds? Isn’t he kind of creepy and lame? Isn’t it more about happy meals and how they’re everywhere?” I think you can make the same connection with other marketing animals. Say we remove Ronald and the Bears. It won’t change the fact that McDonalds (and other fast food chains like it) are more prevalent in poor communities than in affluent ones. Soda will still be displayed prominently in every convenience store. It won’t change the fact that soda serving sizes have increased (and continue to increase) very far across the line of the ridiculous (looking at you Big Gulp). It will make little dent in the fact that most of the time fast food and sugar sweetened beverages are cheaper than healthier options. And it won’t change the millions of dollars beverage companies spend defeating reasonable proposals like the NYC portion size restriction or soda taxes at the community level (though communities are gaining a few victories). It also doesn’t change the fact that well intentioned parents often ditch the soda in favor of fruit juice or flavored milks, which have just as much sugar.
My point is this: if we get rid of the bears, or Ronald, or the Clydesdales, we’re claiming victory while changing few of the factors that actually determine consumption. So we should stop fighting a pointless battle. Let me enjoy cartoon polar bears and majestic horses pulling a cart of beer every Christmas, and let’s focus on the factors that matter: competitive cost with healthy drinks, obnoxious serving sizes, and competitive placement in stores to start.
To play devil’s advocate…
I’m a reasonable enough person to recognize that I could be wrong about this. Perhaps a lifetime of sport and parents who restricted my soda consumption made it easy for me to avoid soda for the most part. Having diabetes also makes that pretty easy (outside of emergencies). Having the education and knowledge I do makes it easier. Maybe the marketing is less harmless than I think, and I’ve just been fortunate enough to avoid the worst of it. Maybe getting rid of Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man were effective in reducing smoking.
Please comment with your thoughts!