|January 15, 2013|
By Ruth Faden
A version of this is crossposted on The Atlantic/Health
Advertising is inherently self-serving, that’s its job. No one expects a corporate ad, or a political one for that matter, to be a public service announcement or deliver a health education message. But self-serving is one thing, and unethical is quite another.
The line between what is acceptable in advertising and what is inappropriate is fuzzy, at best, and often set far too low. Sometimes even that too-low bar gets crossed, and this is one of them.
Coca-Cola’s latest attempt to position itself against the rising tide of concern about the role of sodas in the obesity epidemic is unconscionable. “All calories count. No matter where they come from including Coca-Cola and everything else with calories,” the ad says.
For Coca-Cola to suggest that all calories are equal flies in the face of reality as best as we can determine it. Many foods and drinks contain calories but also nutritional value; these are the calories that fuel our daily lives. Added sugars like those in Coca-Cola, however, add calories but no nutrition— so-called “empty calories.” According to the Food and Drug Administration, “In some foods, like most candies and sodas, all the calories are empty calories.” So, Coca-Cola’s claim that “all calories count” is extraordinarily misleading.
Coca-Cola wants us to ignore the considerable research confirming that sugary soda is a major contributor to obesity, and that it has no nutritional value. In the fall of 2012, three separate studies were published providing evidence that soda leads to obesity in children and adults, and worsens weight problems of those genetically pre-disposed to obesity.
If Coca-Cola really wants to help improve the public’s health it should dramatically alter its product line. Short of that, Coca-Cola could use its considerable advertising muscle to promote healthy exercise, yes, but when it does so as a ploy to confuse the public about the dangers of its products, that’s not a public service, that’s unethical.
Ruth Faden is the Wagley Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. She is the co-author with Madison Powers of Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy.