Coke was unlucky with the ACCC

Coca Cola’s “setting the record straight” advertisements started running in the newspapers this weekend, but one of the most important points of this debacle has been lost.  

coca-cola-accc-corrective-adAnd that’s the fact that the intervention of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has dramatically undermined self-regulation.

And actually, I’m really not sure that Coca Cola has done much that could be pointed to as bad marketing.

Back in October, they ran some ads, taking on some “myths”, including putting its side of the health debate on caffeine content and whether the drink can make you fat.

I must admit, to me, it looked like a smart move at the time – even if the use of Kerry Armstrong as the spokesman was a bit twee. Surely, tackling issues where they arise is good practice for any high profile brand.

Naturally, being Coca Cola, it drew the ire of the anti junk food lobby, who very quickly took against it.

The Advertising Standards Bureau – which is effectively a self-regulated body –  took a look, and decided it was fair enough.

That seemed to me to be the right decision. To me, this was nothing more than Coca Cola putting its side of the case and selecting the facts that best supported its argument. That’s what you do in a debate. It was clearly labelled as an advertisement, designed to balance criticism put by Coke’s opponents.

But then the ACCC got involved, and from that moment, Coke was screwed. Even if Coca Cola had been reasonably certain of winning any court battle, if the ACCC had gone through with a legal case, the publicity for Coke would have been hugely damaging.

So they settled, agreeing to make the corrective advertisements.

Sadly it means the next brand that’s an easy target will be less likely to join the debate. It’s another win for the anti lobby.

As it happens, I don’t think the damage for Coke as a brand will be lasting. After all, the dominant image in the corrective ads is a giant great Coca-Cola bottle.

For Kerry Armstrong, it’s a diffrent matter though. It’s a great lesson for celebrities – and their agents – that when you lent your name to something, it is not a risk-free process. You still need to do due diligence. She may have got a reported $70,000 for appearing in the ads, but her pesonal image is now tainted enough that other brands may be wary of using her.

But the ACCC intervention is the significant thing. It’s time to stop pretending that advertising is still self-regulated.

(Update: Julian Lee wrote an interesting piece on the same subject in the SMH over the weekend, which takes a slightly different point of view.)


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