Coca-Cola is being sued. The lawsuit charges that the Coca-Cola company knows its sugary drinks are unhealthy, and that it has been deceiving consumers into thinking otherwise. Conversations about the lawsuit include several common viewpoints:
- Everybody knows that Coke is bad for you, so this is a matter of personal responsibility.
- Coke is no worse than any other unhealthy source of empty calories, so why pick on the Coca-Cola company?
- Coca-Cola’s misleading advertising is just like the tobacco companies’ misleading advertising.
But there is at least one implication here that matters to all of us who publish web content. Coca-Cola, according to the lawsuit, is responsible for the messages in their online marketing materials, the interviews their leaders have given to other web publishers, the influencers they funded — their web content, in short, as well as their ads. The lawsuit’s decisions may hinge on what Coca-Cola knew and who they paid to soft-pedal the information, but the suit will set precedents for web content responsibility.
What did the Coca-Cola company do?
Coke ads don’t claim health benefits (though they did in the 1890s, when Coke was advertised as “the ideal brain tonic” and “specific for headaches” and also contained cocaine). Their ads suggest that Coke makes people feel happy and refreshed. They say nothing about health.
But Coke’s non-ad web content suggests that Coke is important for hydration, that drinks full of sugar or artificial sweeteners provide the pick-me-up needed by active people, and that studies showing a connection between sodas and diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are not reliable. Some of the web content in question includes studies showing no connection between sweet drinks and disease, studies which were paid for by the Coca-Cola company. This is one of the things that has led to the comparison with tobacco companies.
One ad posted at YouTube has the following text in its description: “A 12oz can of Coke = 140 calories. There are many ways to burn those calories through EXTRA physical activity and have fun while doing so. Balance your lifestyle. Be OK. Open happiness. Visit http://comingtogether.com.” This is an example of the kind of message the lawsuit describes. It’s not in the ad, but it’s part of the complaint.
The lawsuit wants Coca-Cola to produce educational information about the health risks of their product, and to add a warning that “consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages can lead to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease” to their websites. Coke’s main website focuses on music, art, history, and their charitable endeavors. They have lots of great content. Health-related information focuses on environmental issues, the importance of hydration, and specific ingredients like stevia. They used to have reports from the Beverage Institute of Health and Wellness, but they’ve given that up, explaining that “While well-intended, our focus on scientific research and physical activity created confusion that ultimately led to mistrust.”
A lot of the content being referenced isn’t on Coke’s many websites at all. It includes an interview in USA Today, for example, as well as a number of web pages that are no longer online. Coca-Cola is being held responsible not only for the content on its own websites, but also for the content it provided to other websites.
The company has responded in several different ways, but one of their defenses is that every company has bloggers.
While most website owners will never face a lawsuit for their web content, the fact that this suit has been filed tells us that brands should expect to be held responsible for their web content.
This means that our web content has to be responsible.
Frankly, I have sympathy– at least abstract sympathy — for Coca-Cola in this situation. 60% of Americans say they’re trying to avoid sodas, and soda sales have been falling for a decade. Imagine having a product which is bad for people’s health and having to figure out a way to deal with that. Ideally, I suppose, a brand in this position would say, “Yes, we see that our product is actually unwholesome and we’re going to switch right now to making green tea instead,” but that’s not going to fly with stockholders. It’s easy to see how tempting it might be to try to present a different narrative.
Most of us will not find ourselves in a situation like that. But it’s a reminder to take the long view. Focus on SEO and valuable content and skip the marketing stunts.Our web visitors will hold us responsible for our web content, so we should make sure that we take responsibility for it.