Coca-Cola Canada has come out this week accusing the City of Ottawa of unfairly targeting its products in the city's campaign to promote healthy living and address health risks related to nutrition.
In statements to this effect, Coke expressed its displeasure with the City of Ottawa by asserting that it "expect[s] Ottawa Public Health (OPH), as a public institution, to be a source of neutral and unbiased information for consumers." Apparently, telling your citizens to make healthy choices is uncharacteristic of that.
The most curious thing about this whole story can be summarized in the words of Councillor Mathieu Fleury, a Ottawa Board of Health Member: "We're not targeting [Coca-Cola]...They've obviously targeted themselves."
Although the City of Ottawa has not particularly targeted any company in its health promotion campaign, Coca-Cola has preemptively responded to what it perceives to be a direct attack. Indeed, letters reacting to the alleged direct jab were sent to city politicians by at least four high-ranking individuals in the distribution chain of Coca-Cola products in Ottawa.
How strange, I thought. Why would Coca-Cola (without having been singled out) attract so much negative attention to its products, and do so at the risk of losing sales? Even more strange to me was the tone the company used to voice its concerns: "Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada strongly opposes any program that uses taxpayer dollars to unfairly target our products." Notice the choice of words and how the tone invokes that of a disgruntled citizen?
By crafting this preemptive attack to the city's healthy lifestyle campaign, Coca-Cola, has brilliantly managed to determine how this discussion would be framed in the public sphere. In doing so, it has cleverly shifted the heart of the discussion away from evaluating the nutritional content of fizzy sugary water to the city government's intrusion on the rights and liberties of its citizens to make unhealthy lifestyle choices. Somehow, amidst attempts to fight obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the City of Ottawa, and not Coca-Cola has become the bad guy!
Comments left by readers on these articles confirm that Coca-Cola's spinning of the bottle onto Ottawa officials is having the intended effect. Instead of seeing praises from citizens who were proud that their city is taking a bold stance against the peddlers of Coke, numerous comments have been targeting the city, saying that it should mind its own business (mind you, health care is a public institution in Canada).
This spinning of the issue at hand, unhealthy nutritional choices, is further confirmed by Dr. Levy, the city's top public-health official, who is reported to have said, "I feel like I'm being cross-examined," by Ottawa City Councillor and Board of Health Member Maria McRae, when discussing the aforementioned health campaign. Dr. Levy, as opposed to Coca-Cola, has now been pushed into the hot seat.
As if this is not bad enough, City Councillor McRae states that even if it were to be proposed, the banning of soft drinks would be resisted by certain members of Council given the "significant amount of cash Coke gives the city in many different ways." Wait, what? Who is she working for again?
Maybe Councillor McRae didn't get the memo stating that the OHP's mission is to "improve and advocate for health and well-being through prevention, promotion and protection."
Psst... Perhaps someone should tell McRae that the mission statement was not referring to Coca-Cola. It might be too late though, it seems she's already been bottled and bought.