Propaganda, Persuasion, & Pop:
A Propaganda Analysis of The Coca-Cola Company
The Coca-Cola brand is an American icon—it has been in the hands of thirsty Americans for over a century. Today, Coke is the number one nonalcoholic beverage company and spends billions of dollars on advertising each year (Vault, n.d.). No longer are the ads promoting Coke’s “healthful” qualities; as people’s perceptions of soft drinks have changed, Coca-Cola advertising has as well. For this propaganda analysis, I have chosen to take a deeper look into the advertising campaigns of Coca-Cola over the past few decades as they have tried to battle this shift in consumer opinion and persuade their customers that they are still a brand focused on bringing people happiness.
Ideology & Purpose:
Throughout its history, Coca-Cola has always maintained a positive brand image. The brand’s campaigns and slogans have ranged from “Delicious and Refreshing,” to “It’s the Real Thing,” to “Taste the Feeling.” The company has committed itself to bringing people happiness with their beverages; after all, its mission is to “Refresh the world in mind, body, and spirit; to inspire moments of optimism and happiness through our brands and actions; and to create value and make a difference” (Journey Staff, n.d.). Its advertisements have all shown imagery and words which convey these feelings. As shown in the examples below (Ryan, 2016), Coca-Cola simply wants its product to put a smile on consumers’ faces.
Through the passing years, Coca-Cola kept this mission and held strong to it as the soda industry grew. Things started to change, however, when people began worrying more about their health and the health of their children. Within the past few decades, the nation’s movement toward healthier living has certainly hurt the Coca-Cola brand—one that capitalizes on the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages. Many consumers began to no longer look at Coca-Cola products in the same manner; instead, they began to see the actual dangers these products posed to them. To combat this change in consumer behavior, Coca-Cola made a choice. Instead of changing their product to fit changing consumer tastes, the company fought to change consumer opinion itself. Thus, a new ideology and purpose of Coca-Cola emerged.
During this time, Coca-Cola made huge pushes in their advertising and propaganda efforts in order to position themselves in a better light, despite the trends for healthier eating. In 2005, the company launched Coke Zero to essentially appeal to more people (The Associated Press, 2005). They also began releasing propaganda campaigns (which was later discovered) through various news sites. Known as “payola schemes,” Coca-Cola paid individuals to position pro-Coke articles on over 1,000 news websites. Even though their soft drinks had links to health issues such as obesity and kidney stones, Coke paid enough money to make themselves appear in a more positive light (Adams, 2015).
In addition to these seemingly unethical propaganda strategies, Coca-Cola also addressed the health issues associated with their products through commercials. The company released an advertisement in 2013 (see below) with hopes to reduce some of the skepticism among health-conscious consumers. Ultimately, these new actions taken by Coca-Cola stemmed from an entirely different ideology than when the company first started. The purpose was to no longer maintain customers and increase sales; it was to win them back and change public opinion. As sales began to drop, Coke began to panic, so the brand took steps to change opinion any way they could and for any price.
In Coca-Cola’s beginning, the public opinion was radically different than it is now. No one was concerned about the ingredients within Coke; it was promised to be delicious and refreshing and that’s all that mattered. As Coca-Cola’s popularity began to grow, soda sales and consumption skyrocketed from the 1960s through the 1990s. Soda quickly became an iconic part of the American culture, and the classic red and white logo of Coca-Cola enforced that even more. Throughout these years, the soda industry thrived, and it wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s when attitudes started to shift in a major way. According to the New York Times, sales of full-calorie sodas in the US have dropped by more than 25% since 1995 (2015). A major contributor to this has been the obesity epidemic, and more specifically, childhood obesity. The link between sugary sodas and obesity had been made, and Coca-Cola suffered. With this changing perception of soda, soda brands were faced with the issue to either accept the facts and slowly die out or make a change.
Coke’s propaganda put out through the media news outlets was a way in which they tried to shift consumer perceptions. This health-minded society was already reading the latest health and fitness articles and doing research about healthy living, so these pro-Coke stories would quickly get into their hands and appear believable. In addition, Coke’s advertisements which directly addressed the issue of obesity depicted a company that cared about social issues and was honest with its customers. In recent years, the social responsibility and sustainability of a company are key factors when it comes to customers trusting a brand. This advertising was just another way in which Coca-Cola tried to appear honest and trustworthy to consumers in hopes to win them back.
The propagandist throughout these examples is, obviously, Coca-Cola. Since the company’s beginning, Coca-Cola advertised its products and pushed out its own messaging. However, in recent years, the propaganda and advertising put out by this company has not been as transparent. For example, Coca-Cola’s payola schemes with various news outlets was a more concealed version of propaganda. These news sources and websites were the ones who published the articles, but behind the scenes, it Coca-Cola who was still the real propagandist.
Structure of Propaganda Organization:
In this case, the propagandist is the company Coca-Cola, so the structure of the propaganda organization is a corporate entity. According to Vault, Coca-Cola’s profits have been trending lower over the past several years with falling soft drink sales. As sales trend downward, however, Coca-Cola’s advertising has increased. Most recently, Coke has been spending more and more on its advertising efforts. The company spent $3.26 billion in 2013, $3.5 billion in 2014, and $4 billion this past year in 2015 (n.d.). These numbers show that Coca-Cola is still making an effort to maintain brand loyalty with its customers, despite changing consumer tastes. In addition to these marketing efforts, the Coca-Cola brand has also continued to further expand its product portfolio with noncarbonated drinks to hopefully compensate for the losses in soft drink sales.
The target audience for Coca-Cola is one that has remained relatively constant. Except for select campaigns which may have targeted specific groups of people, the majority of the time, Coca-Cola has advertised to the masses. From kids to adults, Coke reaches consumers of all ages. Specifically with Coca-Cola’s marketing and propaganda efforts in recent years, the company has been trying to target those individuals within their audience who have chosen to adopt a healthier lifestyle. This might be parents looking after their children, or people buying different products for themselves because they realize the potential risks. There is a section of Coca-Cola’s audience who may not be affected by the negative media surrounding soft drinks and will still make the purchase, but overall, Coca-Cola’s intention was to get this messaging out to the largest number of people possible.
As previously discussed, Coca-Cola dedicates a large portion of its budget to marketing efforts, so there are many mediums through which they advertise. Throughout the years, Coca-Cola has heavily utilized many types of print media such as newspapers, magazines, posters, and billboards. Shown above are a few examples of Coca-Cola’s print ads from the past. In addition to these, the brand has also been known to advertise through other mediums like radio, television, and cinema. Both television and cinema, specifically, have been huge for the company. For example, many people automatically associate going to the movies with a bag of popcorn and a coke. The company uses both commercial advertisements between TV shows or before a movie, but more subtly, Coca-Cola utilizes product placement. There are hundreds of examples involving product placement such as the example from the movie The Breakfast Club shown below. It’s just another way in which Coke is able to insert its brand into any setting without being as direct as a commercial.
In more recent times, a large proponent to Coca-Cola’s advertising efforts has been the internet. The company utilizes digital advertisements like pop-up ads and sponsorships through this digital medium. The internet also allows consumers from all around the globe to interact with the Coca-Cola brand in real time. Especially on social media, consumers have the ability to share their feedback and stories with Coca-Cola, which acts as a great marketing tool for the company. Coca-Cola’s website is also full of information for consumers to access. The company is able to showcase and advertise its products, but it also gives customers a look into other sides of the company. Coca-Cola puts a huge emphasis on social marketing as they participate in a number of initiatives and social causes. Just a few of these include: sustainable packaging, climate protection, workplace rights, women empowerment, and safe drinking water (Coca-Cola Journey, n.d.). Sustainability and social responsibility is important to customers now, so Coca-Cola is sure to advertise these aspects of the business through the internet.
All of Coca-Cola’s advertising and propaganda efforts are focused on the objectives to either increase brand awareness or to trigger a desire to buy. And since almost all of the brand’s advertising is visual, they are able to successfully achieve these objectives through their use of visual rhetoric. The example below is a Coca-Cola commercial from 1961, and it goes to show just how much this brand’s advertising has changed over the years. The woman featured in the commercial emphasizes the healthful qualities of Coke. She talks about how the beverage is low in calories (just as much as half a grapefruit), and how it helps her keep her trim figure. In this commercial, Coca-Cola is perceived to be the go-to beverage for all of her needs. It provides a refreshing energy boost, it’s low in calories, and it offers her a break to her busy day. The tone of the commercial is conversational and relaxed. It gives us a peek into the woman’s day, and she speaks like she’s talking to a friend and recommending Coca-Cola to them. The woman’s nonverbal communication coveys this message in the way she casually walks over to the beverage and the camera follows her. The way in which she lifts the bottle to her mouth is slow and exaggerated as well, conveying a kind of cool sophistication about her as she drinks Coca-Cola. All of these elements come together to build desire around the Coca-Cola product and raise awareness.
More recent Coca-Cola advertisements send an entirely different message. The “Coming Together” commercial (2013) which was shown above recognizes that Coca-Cola is no longer associated with weight loss, or healthy living for that matter. The commercial focuses on the issue of obesity and Coca-Cola’s role in the issue. The video positions Coca-Cola as a company who is combating the issue of obesity, even though it has widely contributed to it over the years. They mention their efforts to expand their product portfolio to offer more no and low-calorie drink options, smaller portion sizes, and to display the calorie count on the front of their bottles/cans. It also speaks on the company’s effort to reduce the number of soft drinks and high-calorie beverages offered in schools. The commercial closes by identifying the “real” problem when it comes to obesity—lack of exercise. Instead of taking all the blame, the company places it elsewhere, with the conclusion that as long as Coke consumers exercise, they can drink as many soft drinks as they want. Overall, the commercial enforces this messaging with health-related imagery, people enjoying Coke products, and visual infographics; all of this comes together with the soothing and educational voice of a woman who narrates the commercial, in hopes to give viewers a sense of trust for the company.
Regarding Coca-Cola’s anti-obesity efforts, the company has utilized a number of techniques and approaches within its propaganda and advertising. In both Coca-Cola’s “Coming Together” commercial and the news articles which were published, the company utilized Aristotle’s persuasive appeals of Logos and Ethos. By pushing out pro-Coke information through fitness and nutrition news sites, Coke wanted to appear in a context that seemed logical and credible to readers. Without publishing their own news releases to defend their products, Coca-Cola paid off experts in the industry to publish the information in order to be perceived as more believable. Coca-Cola’s anti-obesity commercial used similar techniques in the way it was structured. As a leader in the soda industry, Coca-Cola positioned itself to be the most knowledgeable on the topic of obesity, since it was so closely linked to it. In addition to this, the video stated fact after fact regarding nutrition and the ways in which Coke has tried to improve its products. The video further provides logical reasoning as to why exercise is more important when battling obesity, all in hopes to appear more knowledgeable and trustworthy to consumers.
Some other techniques that Coca-Cola utilized, specifically in its “Coming Together” commercial, were the approaches of scapegoating and framing. Scapegoating is a technique used to blame someone or something else for an issue. In this scenario, Coke directly addressed the issue of obesity, but put the blame on lack of exercise instead of its own products which contain large amounts of sugar and health-hazardous chemicals. In order to place the blame where they did, Coke used the technique of framing. As the video addressed the issue of obesity, Coke positioned itself as a company who is providing the solution to the problem, instead of contributing to it. They addressed the issues associated with their products and stated the ways they were working to improve them; but in the end, Coke only wanted to distance itself from the problem and provide a logical secondary option for viewers to buy into.
For years, people have begun to view Coca-Cola and soft drinks altogether in a different light. They have felt that they have been betrayed by this industry for so long and have been misguided about what was truly in these products. After the anti-obesity “Coming Together” commercial aired, there were a variety of reactions from the public. Many health and fitness experts, specifically, were very critical of the new campaign. One nutrition critic told New York magazine, “It’s up to us to remember that Coke makes its money selling sugar-sweetened beverages, and even when they’re apologizing for that, as they appear to be doing here—they’re still selling them.” Like this comment, many also complained how this campaign is hypocritical—why is Coca-Cola bragging about working to fix the problem when they were the source of it in the first place? A Healthy Living blogger disputed Coca-Cola’s comment that “all calories count” in the commercial by saying, “High fructose corn syrup is absorbed more rapidly than regular sugar, and it doesn’t stimulate insulin or leptin production. This prevents you from triggering the body’s signals for being full and may lead to overconsumption of total calories” (The Huffington Post, 2013).
Some individuals commended the company for being honest with consumers in this new commercial, but the majority of the reactions were primarily negative.
Coca-Cola’s other form of propaganda in effort to battle the obesity issue was the company’s payola schemes with various news outlets. At the time, these practices were kept under wraps, but in late 2015, leaked emails revealed these unethical practices to the public. Rhonda Applebaum, a senior executive at Coca-Cola, was the one responsible for the payouts. Applebaum’s emails were leaked, and shortly after, the senior executive took “immediate retirement” (Sarlch, 2015). After this information was released, the same type of reactions followed. Again, consumers felt betrayed and lied to, giving them the impression that Coca-Cola is more concerned with gaining sales than it is about social issues and being honest with consumers.
There has been examples of counterpropaganda regarding the sale of soft drinks; however, there has been no specific counterpropaganda to Coca-Cola’s efforts toward combatting the obesity issue.
Since Coca-Cola’s beginning, their advertising and propaganda efforts can be considered successful due to the fact that they are the number one nonalcoholic beverage brand. Coca-Cola built an iconic brand which associated itself with all things that brought us joy—things like music, the American culture, our favorite celebrity spokespeople, and Santa Claus. It was a brand that truly did bring people happiness.
It wasn’t until society’s perceptions of soft drinks began to change when Coca-Cola had to think about change. People linked obesity to sugary beverages, and this link pointed straight at Coca-Cola. The company has done everything to combat people’s changing ideals—they used advertising campaigns, social responsibility, and forms of propaganda to try to win consumers back. All of this effort, in my opinion, is a lost cause. Ever since obesity became a huge issue in our nation, Coca-Cola will always maintain that association. The company’s “Coming Together” campaign was refreshingly different to see, but it was still just another scheme to cover up information and alter perception. Coca-Cola soft drink products will never be “good” for you, no matter how you spin it; and society knows that now. No matter how hard Coca-Cola tries, there will be no getting that link out of consumers’ minds.
Adams, M. (2015). Coca-Cola caught running massive payola scheme to churn out deceptive corporate propaganda on over 1,000 news sites. Natural News. Retrieved from http://www.naturalnews.com/049027_Coca-Cola_payola_scheme_corporate_propaganda.html
The Associated Press. (2005). Coke to launched new no-calorie soda. NBC News. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/7257920/ns/business-us_business/t/coke-launch-new-no-calorie-soda/#.WCUmUfkrLIU
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The Huffington Post. (2013). Coca-Cola anti-obesity ad: Reactions and the research. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/17/coca-cola-anti-obesity-ad-addressing_n_2489357.html
Journey Staff. (n.d.). Mission, vision and values. The Coca-Cola Company. Retrieved from http://www.coca-cola.co.uk/about-us/mission-vision-and-values
Jowett, G. & O’Donnell, V. (2015) Propaganda and Persuasion: Sixth Edition. SAGE Publications.
Ryan, T. (2016). Coca-Cola slogans through the years. The Coca-Cola Company. Retrieved from http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/history/2016/coca-cola-slogans-through-the-years-
Sanger-Katz, M. (2015). The decline of ‘big soda.’ The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/upshot/soda-industry-struggles-as-consumer-tastes-change.html
Sarlch, C. (2015). Leaked emails prove Coca-Cola was paying for propaganda promoting sugary drinks. InfoWars. Retrieved from http://www.infowars.com/leaked-emails-prove-coca-cola-was-paying-for-propaganda-promoting-sugary-drinks/
Vault. (n.d.). The Coca-Cola Company. Retrieved from http://www.vault.com/company-profiles/food-beverage/the-coca-cola-company/company-overview.aspx