Let’s take a trip back to August. The days are long, summer is still in full swing, and Coca-Cola’s link to the Global Energy Balance Network, a health nonprofit, has just been discovered.
“But really,” Coke said (figuratively), “even though we’ve provided the $1.5 million needed to start the nonprofit, we have absolutely no say in what they’re doing. We’re just, you know, interested in health and stuff.”
Even back then things looked shady. For starters, the Global Energy Balance Network’s entire mission was to convince Americans that they were too fixated on calories and healthy eating and needed to be more concerned with exercise and living active lives. Beyond that, it was discovered that the organization’s website, GEBN.org, was registered to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, and that the soft drink giant was listed as a site administrator.
“Bros, it’s no big deal,” GEBN said (essentially). “We just don’t know how to register websites like Coke does, see?”
And from the mouth of University of Colorado School of Medicine professor and president of GEBN, James O. Hill (literally this time), “They’re not running the show. We’re running the show.”
Except it was a lie.
Marion Nestle, author of Soda Politics, NYU professor, and known combatant against weird partnerships like this, said it best: “The Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake.”
Fast-forward to today, when the AP revealed that it had obtained some pretty damning e-mails supporting Nestle’s accusations. Like this one, written on Nov. 9, 2014, from Hill to one of Coke’s executives: “It is not fair that Coca-Cola is signaled out as the #1 villain in the obesity world, but that is the situation and makes this your issue whether you like it or not. I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”
That sounds pretty much exactly like what Nestle was saying — Coke’s fingers were deep in the proverbial GEBN pie (which is a-okay to eat, as long as you balance it out with a good walk around the neighborhood afterwards). They participated in conference calls with the nonprofit to revise their mission statement, suggested videos and articles for the website, and even warned against using blue tones on the logo. “Color will not be an issue—except for blue. Hope you can understand why,” Coke’s chief health and science officer Rhona Applebaum wrote in one e-mail. (And lo! Look at that lovely orangey-red logo!)
So, yeah. Coke’s pretty much been caught with their pants down on this one. Applebaum has already stepped down from her position…er, “retired,” and Coke says they won’t seek a replacement for her, but will instead overhaul the way they go about health efforts. Which maybe means not paying nutritionists to suggest mini-cans of Coke as an ideal post-workout snack, and maybe not using a non-profit as a private bullhorn.
UPDATE: The group has officially shut down — citing a “resource limitation.” In other words: “we can’t run without those $1.5 million ‘unrestricted’ grants from Coke!”