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Coke Is Urging Youths to Get Physical

By Melanie Warner
Issue: 7/12/05
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The New York Times

In many schools, Coca-Cola is best known for the red-and-white cafeteria vending machines that sell its beverages. But starting next month, the company will be promoting something very different: exercise and healthy living.

In a program called Live It, Lance Armstrong and other sport figures will appear in posters encouraging children to be active. Melanie White, a Coke executive who oversees the company's vending business in secondary schools and other youth markets, said the program was aimed at sixth graders.

Ms. White said the company had determined that among its student consumers, sixth graders would be the most receptive to its message, adding that Coke's policy is not to sell any of its products in elementary schools or market to children under 12.

She said Coke was spending $4 million on the program, which will also include nutritional information. The goal is to persuade 8,500 public middle schools, or two million students, to participate in the weeklong program during the coming school year, she said.

In each school, Coke will hand out pedometers to students and hold contests to reward students who log the highest numbers of steps in a week. Prizes will include radios intended to be worn during workouts.

Students will also watch a video featuring Lance Armstrong, the six-time Tour de France winner, and hear a message from him over their school's public address system. Posters, in addition to featuring Mr. Armstrong, will include the Nascar drivers Bobby Labonte and Kyle Petty and W.N.B.A. stars like Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings.

Coke, which has vending contracts with thousands of middle schools, says that none of the Live It materials will display its logo or feature Coke products. "This program is about education, not selling product," Ms. White said. "It would be disingenuous to sell product through a program like this."

Coke and other soft drink companies have been under fire lately for their presence in schools. Increasing numbers of state legislators and concerned parents have blamed companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo for contributing to major increases in childhood obesity in the last few decades. So far, seven states have imposed bans on sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks in school vending machines.

Most of these rules, however, cover elementary schools and middle schools, not high schools, where the bulk of soda and junk food sales occur. Last month, New Jersey became the first state to include high schools in its ban.

Coke executives have said they are concerned about the obesity problem and are trying to do the right thing. Ms. White said that featuring Mr. Armstrong in schools was the latest in a continuing initiative to educate children about healthy lifestyles.

But critics say that Coke's efforts, while they do not directly sell soda to children, are a slick, cleverly conceived attempt at image marketing. "This sort of thing is designed to create a halo around Coca-Cola so people will say, What a great, responsible company they are; they're trying to be a part of the solution," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that is often critical of food companies.

Ms. Wootan said she would be thrilled if Nike were to bring Mr. Armstrong into schools, but that a beverage company like Coke has no expertise in the area of sports or physical education.

"If Coke were to encourage kids to drink more water or juice instead of soda, that would be great," Ms. Wootan said.

According to materials provided by Coke, the nutritional aspects of the Live It program make no mention of beverage consumption. Instead, they encourage children to eat a range of healthy foods, like salads and grilled chicken.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit group in Portland, Ore., that opposes many forms of corporate marketing, said that if Coke really wanted to be helpful, it could stop battling well-meaning state and local efforts to remove soda and junk food from schools. "They're lobbying as hard as they can against these things," he said.

Ms. Wootan, who lives in Washington and has spent several years working with other parents to get schools in the District of Columbia to remove sodas and junk food, said she also faced considerable opposition from Coke. "Their representative fought us every step of the way," she said. "What they're doing is saying one thing at the national level and then doing something else locally."

It has also been widely reported that the head of Coke's lobbying concern in Connecticut was a former aide to Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who last month vetoed the School Nutrition Bill, which would have prevented nondiet sodas and junk food from being sold in all Connecticut schools.

Coke says that it opposes statewide bans because school administrators should have the ability to choose what is best for their students.

Ms. White says that her staff is mounting an extra effort to make sure schools are aware of Coke's "full range of beverage products," which include Dasani water and Minute Maid juice.

"We offer the products and it's up to the schools to decide what they need," Ms. White said.

Bill Pecoriello, a Morgan Stanley beverage analyst, said that Coke should consider not even offering its full-calorie sodas to schools. "They'd be better off not selling those in schools because there's so much negative publicity around the issue," he said. "They could swap water and juices for soda and there'd be no impact on the bottom line."

Despite predictions from people like Ms. Wootan and Mr. Ruskin that one day soda will no longer be sold in schools, it is likely that students will remain an important market for beverage companies, who have long had a strong presence in school systems.

"Per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks is very high among 16- to 21-year-olds and by the time kids are in junior high school they're starting to form brand preferences," Mr. Pecoriello said.

Coke is already making a push to meet new demands from schools. Ms. White says the company recently created short and squat plastic containers for Dasani water that can fit into traditional vending machines for cans.

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