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According to Kids, Coke and the Critics Are Missing the Point

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Last week I've watched with great interest the commercials launched by Coca-Cola, which were created to engage in the discussion on obesity and provide a perspective on the role that sugar and sodas play in this health dilemma. As a mother of two boys , a former ad executive and now founder of a company in the kids' beverage industry, I believe that Coke, as well as its numerous critics, are missing the point.

First of all, I would like to applaud the work of leaders such as the First Lady Michelle Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose efforts have been key in getting the world's largest beverage company to do something unprecedented and actually engage in the subject of obesity in a serious way. I also applaud Coke for raising attention to this issue in a thoughtful way by pointing out the range of products they offer and community work they have done, and continue to do, to help curb obesity. With that said, I think that Coke and the critics of their new campaign are missing the point altogether and missing a great opportunity.

I believe that the success of Coke, and let's not forget Pepsi, over many generations has not been due to product innovation, community-oriented efforts, social engagement or anything of that nature. With over half of Americans drinking at least one soda daily, a shocking average of 45 gallons of soda per year, their success has been attributed to their mastery of marketing, or as my kids would say, "making sodas really cool!" In my opinion, between the two commercials the one that works best in terms of engagement for Coke is not 'Coming Together' -- the two minute corporate responsibility film which unfortunately comes across as defensive, very late and transparent in its agenda -- it is the 'Be OK' ad. Why? Because 'Be OK' is a classic Coke ad. As my son Jack elaborated, "Coke ads are fun, cool and make you feel happy." They relate to the audience in an emotional and emphatic way. That is exactly why kids love to drink Coke.

Yes, kids love sodas and sugary drinks. About 56 percent of 8-year-olds and 78 percent of 9-14 year-olds consume soda daily. Even more shocking, one in three teens consume at least three cans of soda per day. That is too much soda. These beverages contain empty calories, which have no nutritional value, and are certainly not what Coke is telling its consumers -- 'happy.' Over consumption of these drinks can lead to serious health issues, including obesity. These hard facts along with learning that, due to obesity, today's generation of kids are expected to live shorter than their parents, pushed me to become involved in the kids' beverage industry. Over the last five years, I have had the privilege of learning from kids about how to engage their generation and create excitement for the healthiest thirst quencher of all -- water.

Being a mom and also having worked with and been inspired by kids, I believe part of the solution to the obesity problem, particularly childhood obesity, is not to confuse and reposition the facts (empty is not happy) and it's not to make low or no calorie versions of products such as Coke Zero or Vitamin Water Zero. Kids don't like to be confused, they are smart and can tell if a brand is trying too hard or deceiving them in some way. They also perceive these attempts at a healthier product as 'less than the real thing.' If you know kids, you know they hate nothing more than being shorted or 'gipped.' I believe from the kids' perspective, the answer is very simple. Create healthy, contemporary brands that do what Coke and Pepsi have done so successfully for years; build a desire, create a strong emotional appeal and most of all be 'cool' in the eyes of kids. This is exactly how Coke is portrayed in their anti-obesity 'Be OK' spot and why, in my eyes, it is effective.

Unfortunately, most of the so-called 'healthy' brands out there are either compromises (less than the real thing) or are marketed around adult values like purity of source, good for you, organic, natural ingredients and eco-responsibility. The industry doesn't get it. Not many kids crave Coke or sip it from that iconic bottle because it is 'sugar and fizzy water,' they love or loved Coke because of its marketing -- 'Teach the World to Sing,' the Polar Bears, and more recently 'Open Happiness.' Similarly, young people grab Pepsi not for what is inside but for what it stands for, the 'new generation.' Michael Jackson and Britney Spears have danced alongside Pepsi and now, the face of the most beautiful women in the world as dubbed by People magazine, Beyonce, will be on its can.

I believe that marketing and its emotional appeal is the key and that is the point that Coke missed in their new campaign. It is also what the critics are missing in their commentaries. Instead of slamming the ads and claiming they are deceitful, defensive, disingenuous and so on, they should recommend that Coke use their significant corporate power and truly face the problem head on. Coke needs to seriously invest in putting out healthy products instead of the 'less then the real thing' options and begin standing behind brands that are genuinely healthy. They should do what they are so good at -- make wonderful commercials for those brands and show that they are as cool, fun and happy as the classic Coca-Cola. With their distribution arm (that's another subject) and deep media budgets, those brands will surely be a success and will begin paving the way to improve the health of this country -- most importantly the kids.

Let's face it, if anyone can make a difference in this obesity epidemic it the largest beverage company in the world.

And yes, my kids are allowed an occasional drink of Coca-Cola!