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Big Ban On Campus For Coke Products

Coca-Cola, a once-ubiquitous part of student life, is now being faced with expulsion at many levels of academia.

As watchdog groups mount a challenge against Coke and other soft drink marketers at high-, middle- and elementary schools, it is now becoming hip to boot the brand from college campuses. More than 130 colleges and universities (mostly in the U.S.) have anti-Coke programs in place. At least 20 either have banned Coke products or axed exclusive contracts, per Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, New York.

The country's largest private school, New York University, banned Coke products last week. More are preparing to follow suit, including the University of Michigan on Dec. 31. Student activists want Coke to agree to an independent third-party probe of labor violations at its Colombian bottling plants. There have been at least eight killings in Colombia involving seven union officials and one plant manager since 1989, per CSKC.

In Europe, the National Union of Student Services Limited is being pressured not to renew a contract with Coke that expires in March covering more than 200 campuses and five million students, the group said.

Meanwhile, at the high school level and below, Coke, Pepsi and others are expected to be named in what will likely be a high-profile lawsuit to ban soft drinks in schools. Schools account for less than 5% of Coke's sales, per Beverage Marketing, New York.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, and a team of attorneys are preparing a case that is expected to link sugary soda and its addictive caffeine levels with childhood obesity.

The efforts come as Coke is attempting to jumpstart cola sales by rebuilding its image to become more relevant and cool. Its new "Welcome to the Coke Side of Life" ad campaign, via Wieden + Kennedy, Amsterdam, is due next year.

The controversy "is the flipside of being a big brand," said Kari Bjorhus, a rep for Coke, Atlanta. "We do have arguably the world's best-known trademark. You become a focal point for many issues because of the visibility of your trademark."

Coke has flatly denied that it bears responsibility for troubles at the Colombian plant. To address the issue, Coke hired Cal Safety Compliance Corp. this year to conduct a probe into the bottling plant's activities. It found no instances of anti-union violence or intimidation.

CSKC director Ray Rogers called the findings "a joke," taking issue with the fact Cal Safety was hired directly by Coke.

While Bjorhus said Coke has acted responsibly, the company is considering investigating the situation again to appease activist groups. "We've been looking at the feasibility of another assessment," she said.

Still, the CSKC seems to be gaining momentum. "You'd think they'd be responding to this growing campaign," said Dave Hancock, a third-year undergraduate student who led the NYU ban.

But a potentially bigger problem awaits Coke and others as veterans of the successful class-action suits against Big Tobacco are ready to take on the soft drink giants.

"The industry owes an obligation of responsible conduct," said Stephen Sheller, a partner at Sheller Ludwig & Badey, Philadelphia, who is involved with the pending suit. "They need to take responsibility to protect children. It's the least they can do in an environment where parents are not present."

When asked about the pending lawsuits at an analyst meeting last week, Coke CEO Neville Isdell said that people are "looking through a North American lens in terms of obesity. By in large, it's not an issue overall."

Mary Minnick, head of marketing strategy and innovation, noted at the meeting that Coke currently abides by the American Beverage Association's school vending policy, which was approved in August. That calls for only water and 100% juice to be sold in elementary schools; no full-calorie soft drinks or full-calorie juices with 5% juice or less until after school at the middle-school level; and no more than 50% of soft drink vending selections at high schools.

The ABA released a study this month showing sales of full-calorie drinks fell 24% at schools between 2002 and 2004. The report concluded high school students drink "about one 12-oz. can per week" during school hours. The ABA will break an ad campaign early next year touting the school policy as a responsible step the industry has taken to help address the childhood obesity problem. Porter Novelli, Washington, will handle the TV, radio and print campaign.

ABA CEO Susan Neely described the lawsuit as a misguided "diversion of energy and attention from real solutions."


Kenneth Hein, Brandweek. December 12, 2005

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