CSPI would like to buy the world a wake-up call

Even if you weren’t born yet in 1971, you probably remember a multicultural mob gathering on an Italian hilltop to sing that they’d “like to buy the world a Coke.” It got released on vinyl. In 1990, they brought the singers and their kids back for a Super Bowl commercial. You can watch billionaire sugar monger Warren Buffet play ukulele and sing it on YouTube.  It was Don Draper’s shining moment in the “Mad Men” finale last month. It’s a scary little cultural touchstone.

It got scarier this week.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest released a parody that takes the hilltop hope and peace and replaces it with hospital reality. The parody opens with the identical lyrics and a slide reading: “In 1971 Coca-Cola taught the world to sing with their original ‘Hilltop’ ad.” We hear about the house furnished with love and the “apple bees and honey bees” before the cut to a new slide: “44 years later, the world is singing a different tune about sugary drinks.” The singers this time are real people with real diseases like Tuwayne’s type 2 diabetes and April’s hypertension. It gets darker as the video goes on.

“I’d like to teach the world about what sugar did to me …Liquid Calories gave her diabetes …”

The parody is clever and the targeting spot-on. That doesn’t mean it will make a difference. Diabetes and hypertension are years-away threats in the consumer mind. Sugar is immediate satisfaction, and immediate satisfaction trumps years-away threats every time. Worse than that, obesity and diabetes have become so ubiquitous they seem almost acceptable to too many people. They’re almost not scary.

And CSPI is obviously outgunned. As the video reveals, soda companies spend more than $1 billion on advertising every year. CSPI took on Coca-Cola two years ago with a “Real Bears” video showing Coke’s polar bears facing diabetes and amputation. They’ve grabbed 2.5 million YouTube views in those two years. Coca-Cola’s 2015 Super Bowl commercial has 4.5 million views in four months. Another epic Coke commercial has half a million views since last month.

We saw the tide shift on smoking, but sugar still has the gleam of a treat while smoking was always a dirty habit. Smoking was directly linked to lung cancer. Obesity is a more complex phenomenon. The image of the insulin syringe going into Tuwayne’s roll of fat is jarring, but it’s not a cancerous lung or that woman smoking a cigarette through a hole in her throat in the famous 1996 public service message.

Fighting sugary drinks is noble, but the real war is being fought in the lab. The race for a satisfying sweetener is a global enterprise with a huge prize for the winner. Aspartame and sucralose have lost favor. Stevia has a natural glow but an unfortunate aftertaste. But with so much money and so much science going into the hunt, it’s a good bet a more perfect sweetener will be found.

That’s where the battle against sugar-related diseases will be won--not on a hilltop, or in a hospital.

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