Friday, 1 December 2017

When the Coca-Cola truck comes to your town

Guest post by Robin Ireland, Director of Research at Food Active and Beth Bradshaw, Project Officer at Food Active.

When Coca-Cola announced their 'Holidays Are Coming' truck tour (ironically coinciding with Sugar Awareness Week), our local media in the North West covered the story like it was the first sign of Christmas, the first cuckoo to be spotted in spring.

And in the run up to the big red shiny sugar-laden truck’s arrival to our towns and cities, from Bolton to Liverpool, Manchester to St Helens, the local newspapers will cover the story in page after page of advertorials, telling you where to get your picture taken posing with Coca-Cola's sugary products and even live blogs in some cases.

In previous years, at no time did the reporters consider that not everyone welcomed the truck in their neighbourhood. Many people are concerned that the truck was marketing Coke to children despite the company's protestations that they do not promote their products to the under twelves. Furthermore, in some locations in the North West the truck was allowed to promote their unhealthy drinks to children and families on Council owned landed. 

To demonstrate our concern, last year Food Active drafted a letter objecting to Coca-Cola's tour coming to the North West which was sent to the national and regional media. No less than 108 people signed in support including the current and past Presidents of the Faculty of Public Health, five Directors of Public Health, Professors, Doctors, educationalists and of course parents. If we are honest, we were shocked that the letter was almost entirely ignored. It would appear that Coca-Cola's commercial clout and public relations campaign counted more than the collective voice of those who are having to address the results of diets regularly fuelled by liquid sugar.

Just before Christmas 2016, Professor John Ashton and I (Robin) were in contact with the British Medical Journal concerning these issues and were invited to submit an editorial which was published in January [1]. In contrast to their previous experience the media attention was huge including coverage in over 60 regional and national newspapers and interviews on various channels including Sky News and Wales Today.

This year, the media attention and discussions around the Coca Cola Christmas Tour has continued. Before the tour was even announced, a news story hit the local press in the North West from Liverpool councillor Richard Kemp CBE (also Deputy Chair of the Community Wellbeing Board at the Local Government Association of England and Wales), who raised concerns about its arrival in Liverpool given the city is ‘in the grip of an obesity epidemic’ – although we know this is not an issue only in Liverpool – the whole country is in the grip on an obesity epidemic. Once the tour was announced, including six visits to the North West, we were pleased to see none were on council-owned land (in 2016 the truck visited Williamson Square in Liverpool which is owned by the Council)

Following this came a cascade of news stories from local and national newspapers and radio stations. This year, Food Active joined up with Sugar Smart to encourage Directors of Public Health, Council Leads and Clinical Commissioning Group Chairs across the country to sign an open letter to Coca-Cola opposing its arrival, given the health harms associated with the consumption of their products and calling for more responsible marketing during the festive period. The North West represented one quarter of the 29 areas, cities and towns who signed the letter. This advocacy may have helped to prompt a response from Public Health England and Public Health Wales – there is a sense that the argument against the Coca-Cola truck are now being taken seriously and media coverage of the 2017 Coca Cola Christmas Tour is not just about when and where you can get your photo taken - but also the health concerns. 
Coca-Cola says that it does not promote its products to the under twelves

Following excellent work by Public Health England, by national organisations including Action on Sugar, the Children's Food Campaign and many others, and of course by Food Active in the North West, we know that we must target sugary drinks as part of a strategy to address the tsunami of obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental disease we face in our poorest and most deprived communities. Moreover, as highlighted in a blog by Dr. Alison Tedstone, Director of Diet and Obesity at Public Health England, the truck will be visiting some of our poorest areas which are often disproportionately burdened with higher levels of obesity [2]. As such, a symbol of ill health should not be welcomed nor celebrated within our communities during a season of good will and cheer. 

However, this is not only about high sugar drinks. Protecting children from junk food marketing has been outlined as the number one priority in tackling obesity by the Obesity Health Alliance (a coalition of over 40 organisations committed to reducing obesity – of whom Food Active is a member). We must not mistake the Coca-Cola truck for anything but a very high profile marketing stunt. We do not allow products high in fat, sugar and salt to be advertised to children on children’s TV programmes, so why is the Coca-Cola truck welcomed into our communities year on year with such open arms? Speaking at the Socialist Health Alliance Public Health Conference, we called for junk food marketing controls to be extended to cover family attractions such as the Coca-Cola truck, as well as sports sponsorship and marketing communications in schools. By allowing the truck into our towns and cities, we are allowing Coca-Cola to exploit the festive period to market their products to the community – and to children in particular.

Our experience shows us that public health has to be persistent in ensuring our messages are heard in the current victim-blaming culture. There is little point in local authorities spending their ever restricted funds on promoting healthier eating and drinking if each Christmas we allow Coca-Cola and others to highjack our messages. There is certainly no excuse for local authorities at to allow this truck on their land and it is the responsibility of public health advocates to continue to make the case to Give Up Loving Pop in 2018. 
  1. Ireland, Robin, and John R. Ashton. "Happy corporate holidays from Coca-Cola." (2017): i6833. Available at:
  2. Tedstone, Alison. “An update on sugar reduction”. (2017). Available at:

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