Jill Filipovic, Guardian (London), February 3, 2014
My favorite Super Bowl commercial last night was Coca-Cola’s #AmericaIsBeautiful. The spot, shot with an Instragram-filter aesthetic, featured a multi-lingual rendition of “America the Beautiful” sung by children and illustrated with a diversity of New Americana scenes: a cowboy riding his horse, kids at the movies, teenagers on surfboards at dawn and breakdancing at dusk, headscarf-wearing young women buying food from a cart in Chinatown, two men in yarmulkes looking upon the newly-built Freedom Tower, a same-sex couple roller skating and hugging their daughter. I admit it, I teared up a bit. And I braced myself for the predictable right-wing outrage.
But perhaps those of us who care about inequality and racism should be angry, too. Coca-Cola’s diversity ad wasn’t purposed just to celebrate the reality of a multi-ethnic America. It was to sell soda to rapidly-expanding but vulnerable populations, even if that means contributing to serious health problems, exploiting divides in class and education, and exacerbating racial inequality.
The genius of the Coca-Cola company is that they made the racial aspect of soda marketing work in their favor with this ad. Conservative indignation came immediately, and Twitter exploded with objections to the spot. “We speak ENGLISH here, IDIOTS” pretty much sums up the complaints.
Coca-Cola knew exactly what it was doing with this commercial. It knew it would inflame white conservatives, but, more importantly, it knew the commercial would align Coke with Latinos and other quickly-growing groups in the United States. So Coke expands its market share and promotes its product while endorsing a vision of a diverse, multi-cultural America. What’s the harm?
Unfortunately, the harm lands squarely on the bodies of kids and families with few resources. Educated, affluent white Americans are drinking less soda than they were a few years ago, and soft drink makers now rely largely on “heavy users“–those who drink several sodas every day–to keep their businesses booming. Heavy users tend to be in lower-income areas–places New Orleans, Louisiana and Rome, Georgia. Coke is trying to expand that model. Long dominant in Latin America–that region is Coke’s second-largest market–the company has been trying to capture the Latino market in the United States through target marketing.
That is, of course, how businesses operate. But Coca-Cola’s model depends on consumers who drink significantly more soda than average–a habit that comes with a series of serious health consequences–and on targeting children, who will (ideally) be life-long Coke drinkers.
Expanding populations mean new consumers. American soda companies expanded abroad decades ago, and Coke has been especially aggressive at marketing its products to lower-income consumers who have enough extra cash to spend on a sugary indulgence. A crisis of conscience at his role in expanding Coke into impoverished Brazilian favelas caused one Coca-Cola executive to try and reign in the company’s practices; he was fired for his efforts. Coke has long been successful in Mexico, where it operates its largest independent bottling plant. That country is not only the second-highest soda consumer in the world, right behind the United States, but now has the world’s highest obesity rates (sinking the US to number two). In response to serious public health issues driven by soda consumption, Mexico recently implemented a plan to tax soda. Soda companies have launched a large-scale offensive against both the tax and any criticisms of soda.
In the United States, efforts at securing more “heavy users” are especially pernicious when directed at Latino communities. One in four Latino households in the US is food insecure, compared to one in 10 white households. Of the top 10 US counties with the highest rates of food insecurity, nine are predominantly Latino. Malnutrition rates are twice as high among Hispanic children as non-Hispanic children in the United States.
Hispanic children are also more likely to be overweight or obese. Nearly 12% of Hispanic adults have diagnosed diabetes–by comparison, only 7% of non-Hispanic white Americans have diagnosed diabetes. Within Mexican-American and Puerto Rican populations, diabetes rates climb above 13%. African Americans, also target “heavy user” consumers for soda companies, have diabetes rates that hover around 12%. Perhaps most disturbingly, younger Latinos face higher rates of developing diabetes than any other group: Latina girls born in 2000 have a more than 50% chance of developing the disease in their lifetime.
Marketing to low-income and of-color populations works. In one study focused on New York City, researchers found that the proportion of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who drank more than one soda every day was more than twice the proportion of whites. People living in households with income 200% of the poverty line or below were more likely to be regular soda drinkers than people in wealthier households. African-American New Yorkers were more than three times as likely as whites to drink soda frequently; Mexican-Americans were 2.9 times as likely, and Puerto Ricans were 2.4.
Coke’s targeting of Latino and other immigrant populations is about as progressive as RJ Reynolds marketing menthol cigarettes to African-Americans or Phillip Morris hawking Virginia Slims to women–that is, not very. Before we applaud Coke’s advertising diversity, we should ask: do we really want Coke to diversify?