At 4pm yesterday, the Sydney Morning Herald website screamed “Dirty Rotten Liars” next to a smiling Kerry Armstrong. It would be enough to give senior management at Coca-Cola South Pacific heart palpitations. This is the headline they were hoping to avoid by negotiating a settlement with the ACCC.

We all knew back in October last year when Coca-Cola launched their Kerry Armstrong “myth busting” campaign that something wasn’t right. Yesterday the ACCC added their regulatory clout to the public conscience and severely punished Coca-Cola for misleading the Australian public. Undertakings given by Coca-Cola require it to include full-page colour corrective advertising in a number of major daily papers as well instructing a law firm with trade practices expertise to undertake a review of Coke’s procedures in relation to advertising and promotional material.

The fact that Coca-Cola wanted to tell us that it was a “myth” that their products rotted your teeth, made you fat, and was packed with caffeine is what made their marketing efforts so wrong. They must have sniffed the wind back then by taking out full page ads in the daily papers soon after their advertising spray in an attempt to explain themselves. Ironically, the second round of ads only dug them deeper into a hole with the ACCC because they tried once again to “state the facts”. Of course, the “facts”, as we all knew back then and the ACCC confirmed yesterday, were likely to be misleading.

More importantly the ACCC announcement should be a wake up call for the food industry that they can’t use their marketing spin to hoodwink the Australian consumer. It is hard to see how a can of Coca-Cola, with its eight teaspoons of sugar, could possibly position itself as being something that is not going to contribute to tooth decay, caffeine levels or weight gain.

However there is a lot more to this story. Interestingly, the Australian Dental Association lodged a complaint with the industry led Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) on the grounds that Coca-Cola’s advertising was misleading, among other things. Not too surprisingly the ABA saw no grounds to uphold the complaint. So here we are with the ACCC willing to go in hard against Coca-Cola for what they saw as potentially misleading and deceptive conduct, while the ASB brushes the complaint aside. This story highlights the problems when industry is relied upon to self regulate.

Well, were does this leave Kerry Armstrong? The use of Kerry Armstrong was a very smart move for Coca-Cola, not so for her. Kerry’s appeal to the mum market was used solely to convince parents — if it is good enough for my kids, it is good enough for yours. Interestingly for the first time Kerry spoke publicly yesterday to say that “I haven’t made any comment yet am I not going to because there were things that happened that were way out of my control as well”, she tells The Age. I am sure this is something that her lawyers will follow up on.

If Kerry Armstrong had any doubt when all this hit the media back in October that her association with this product hasn’t helped her image, yesterday has only confirmed it in spades. A lesson that other personalities will need to take note of.

Lets hope that as a result of this ACCC action, the food industry take a closer look at their marketing spin and take greater responsibility for not misrepresenting their products. Importantly, our national government needs to take a good, hard look at how the advertising industry goes about self-regulating itself. As we all know, putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank never works.

Craig Sinclair is the Director of the Cancer Prevention Centre at the Cancer Council Victoria. The Cancer Council Victoria supported the submission to the ACCC by the Obesity Policy Coalition, the Australian Dental Association and the Parents Jury.

Peter Fray

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