I am sitting at home and the popular show American Idol is on. Randy Jackson has a red shirt on, which is color coordinated with a large red Coca-Cola cup. J-Lo is sitting by his side, also with a red Coca-Cola cup. Same with Steven Tyler. When one of the artists takes the stage, there is a large red moving video banner promoting Coca-Cola. It’s called product placement and it has been going on for decades on television and the movies. There is nothing wrong with it of course, but in the case of Coca-Cola, the situation gets a little more interesting because some worry that such advertising may be contributing to the obesity problem in children.
In 2011, researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity in New Haven, CT, published a study examining the number of food, beverage, and restaurant brand appearances within shows during prime-time programming examined by Nielsen in 2008. Items were analyzed by product category and company as well as exposure to children adolescents, and adults. They found that food, beverage, and restaurant brands appeared 35,000 times prime-time TV programming (60% of which were energy/sports drinks). It was noted that young people were rarely exposed to this type of advertising with one exception:
Coca-Cola products were seen 198 times by the average child and 269 times by the average adolescent during prime-time shows over the year, accounting for 70% of child exposure and 61% of adolescent exposure to brand appearances. One show, American Idol, accounted for more than 95% of these exposures… Coca-Cola has pledged to refrain from advertising to children, yet the average child views almost four Coke appearances on prime-time TV every week. This analysis reveals a substantial, potential loophole in current food industry self-regulatory pledges to advertise only better-for-you foods to children.
While this may make it sound like Coca-Cola has violated their pledge, they really have not when you read their pledge carefully. Here is the relevant section:
… we are committed not to directly market messages for any of our beverages to children under 12. We have historically not placed – and continue the practice today of not placing – advertising for any of our beverages on any media that is primarily directed to, and has an audience of 50% or more, children under the age of 12.
First, as you can see, it is not correct to say that Coca-Cola has pledged to not advertise to “children.” Rather they pledged not to directly market their products to children under 12 with a specific audience make-up. Secondly, I do not see how one can make the argument that a few Coca-Cola cups and a Coca-Cola banner on American Idol would be directly marketing to children. Direct marketing to children would be showing Bert and Ernie chugging down a Coca-Cola after singing the alphabet or Sponge Bob and Patrick singing about how good Coca-Cola tastes when paired with a Krabby Patty.
Third, American Idol, which was singled out in the study, gets about 25 million viewers. Of these, about 2 million are estimated to be in the 2-11 age range. That’s 12.5% in that age range which is far from the 50% number in the Coca-Cola pledge. Lastly, for other prime time TV shows, young children will not make up more than 50% of the demographic group because the shows are on too late at night. This is why children’s programming is predominant in the morning and the day. All in all, it seems to me that Coca-Cola has maintained their pledge and has not exploited any type of loophole.
-Dominic A. Carone is a neuropsychologist who blogs at MedFriendly.com.