A walk down the cooler aisle at most any grocery store here in the United States will uncover a whole slew of beverages whose packaging could make even the most unethical of marketers wince. (Ha-ha. Just kidding. We all know that most marketers have no ethics.) From fruit juices to energy drinks, most of the brands on the shelves are dressed in such a way that they give the appearance of being “good for you” without coming right out and making health claims. Over the years, they’ve pushed and pushed this line, with the grand-poobah of them all, Coca-Cola’s Vitaminwater, not just pushing the line, but walking directly over it, dancing a little jig, and then setting up a camp site.
The key, you see, was its use of the word “vitamin”, in its brand name. It would have been the ultimate form of marketing had the drink, y’know, they hadn’t implied that they were the worlds’ healthiest beverage. Watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) noticed Coke’s implication in their marketing and filed suit. They allege that:
… vitaminwater’s labeling and marketing is misleading because it: (1) “bombard[s] consumers with a message of purported benefits, and draw[s] consumer attention away from the significant amount of sugar in the product,”
While that seems a bit innocuous at first, once CSPI lists out the amount of claims the vitaminwater makes, one does begin to wonder how much health benefit one is supposed to be able to gain from 16 ounces of sugar water. For example, CSPI points out the following items :
1. The description of the product as a “Nutrient-Enhanced Water Beverage”;
2. The phrase “vitamins + water = all you need” on the product label;
3. Flavor names such as “rescue” and “defense”;
4. The name “vitaminwater” itself;
5. The statement “vitamins + water = what’s in your hand” on in-store advertising materials;
6. The statement “this combination of zinc and fortifying vitamins can . . . keep you healthy as a horse” on the label of vitaminwater’s “defense” flavor;
7. The statement “specially formulated to support optimal metabolic function with antioxidants that may reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and vitamins necessary for the generation and utilization of energy from food” on the label of vitaminwater’s “rescue” flavor;
8. The statement “specially formulated to provide vitamin [A] (a nutrient known to be required for visual function), antioxidants and other nutrients [that] scientific evidence suggests may reduce the risk of age-related eye disease” on the label of vitaminwater’s “focus” flavor;
9. The statement “specially formulated with bioactive components that contribute to an active lifestyle by promoting healthy, pain-free functioning of joints, structural integrity of joints and bones, and optimal generation and utilization of energy from food” on the label of vitaminwater’s “balance” flavor;
10. The statement “specially formulated with nutrients required for optimal functioning of the immune system, and the generation and utilization of energy from food to support immune and other metabolic activities” on the label of vitaminwater’s “defense” flavor;
11. The statement “specially formulated with [B] vitamins and theanine. The [B] vitamins are there to replace those lost during times of stress (physical and mental). Theanine is an amino acid found naturally in tea leaves and has been shown to promote feelings of relaxation. This combination can help bring about a healthy state of physical and mental being” on the label of vitaminwater’s “Brelaxed” flavor;
12. The statement “specially formulated with nutrients that enable the body to exert physical power by contributing to structural integrity of the musculoskeletal system, and by supporting optimal generation and utilization from food” on the label of vitaminwater’s “Power-C” flavor.
In other words, Coca-Cola puts a lot of health statements on the bottle and hopes that the consumer infers that the product will help improve their eyesight, or help reduce stress, when, in fact, there is no evidence that substantiates any such claim.
Of course Coke thinks that the lawsuit by CSPI is bunk, and asked for it to be dismissed. They stated “that no reasonable consumer could have been misled by vitaminwater’s labeling because:
(1) the FDA-mandated label on each bottle bears the true facts about the amount of sugar per serving;
(2) the allegations about brand names like “vitaminwater,” the one-word flavor names like “rescue,” slogans like “vitamins + water = all you need,” and sayings like “healthy as a horse” describe only puffery; and
(3) no reasonable consumer could believe that vitamins and water are literally “all they need to survive” or all that “is in your hand” when holding a bottle that disclosed the presence of sugar.
The Judge providing over the motion to dismiss, essentially told Coca-Cola’s lawyers that there was cause to proceed, and disallowed their motion.
What this lawsuit does demonstrate is how fast and loose many marketers are willing to play with the facts. In the world of a marketer, even the most minimal of health benefits should be acknowledged, regardless of how shitty the rest of the product may be. Companies do this all. of. the. time. And when someone calls them on it, they either say “Hey, it’s the consumer’s responsibility to read the true nutritional label.” or they shuffle their feet and grin, saying “Well it’s only advertising. The consumer knows it’s advertising.”
Here’s the thing – they know they’re playing fast and loose with the facts. It’s a shell game to them. They want us to believe that advertising is only entertainment, and shouldn’t be taken seriously. But they know how well health claims help the bottom line, which is why they use them in the first place.
And considering all of the above, it makes this Vitaminwater label that much more ironic: