Marketers Framing Soda as “Rebellion”? Genius.


If you’re curious, take a moment and Google the word “rebellion.” Perhaps even type the words “Why does rebellion…” and watch it auto-suggest* “…feel so good.” With either search, you’ll probably get a first page of articles solely about raising teenagers.

I did, and it surprised me. Only teenagers? Is the deliciousness of rebelling something we grow out of? Do adults not feel the same primal urge as youngsters to protect our freedom and resist control?

Personally, I never grew out of it. And I’d think, if anything, adults have a stronger need to rebel than teenagers do. It wasn’t adolescents who dropped $338.4 million on movie tickets to 50 Shades of Grey last month.

Our outlets for rebellion are limited. We can’t stop paying bills and taxes. We can’t stop sitting in a chair for 8 hours a day, plus a car for 1-2 more. But we can, for example, watch a controversial movie for thrills. We can also fight for the freedom to eat and drink whatever we want.

coke play billboard

It is no longer reasonable to believe that Americans would make healthy food choices, if only we had the right information. In the case of soda, there’s no shortage of resources linking it with weight gain and diabetes. Not only “elite” sources like Harvard School of Public Health, but everyday mass media: Rodale, mommy bloggers and the local news warn people about soda daily.

Yes, we’ve been warned. But then an advertisement reminded us of how thirsty we were. Thirsty and looking for an ego boost or a friend, or the lost joy of our youth.

That Coca-Cola billboard above? It’s not advertising to 8-year-olds.

Emotion is a powerful influence over what we decide to consume. And when framed as a consumer freedom issue—Big Soda’s ingenious response to anti-soda campaigns—we almost have to go out and drink a pop. The contrarian, headstrong, independent spirit in all of us cannot resist this call to arms. Just like this patronizing article spiked my desire to see 50 Shades (“Don’t tell me what to do!”), similar health campaigns usually backfire with me, and a lot of other people. While the government is showing us a glass of fat, soda marketers are telling us we could be heroes, or young again, or Beyoncé. Hell, they’re starting a movement.

Anti-soda policymakers and health educators mean well. Soda has been found to cause premature aging, diabetes and fat gain. It corrodes pennies overnight, for heaven’s sake. If only health interventions weren’t such a buzzkill…


J. Scott Armstrong, a Wharton professor and author of Persuasive Advertising, says government mandated warnings are a waste of time. In his research, warning labels have often either failed to produce any effect, or they heightened intrigue and created an opportunity to rebel. He once told me in an interview for U.S. News: “It’s like the old saying ‘If it’s banned in Boston, then it must be something good.’”

Sure enough, efforts to reduce soda consumption with mandatory calorie disclosures didn’t work. The fact that a 20-oz bottle of Coca-Cola contains 240 calories is now printed on the front of the label. Fear-appeal PSAs don’t seem to have worked, either. There’s a psychological phenomenon called “reactance” that any health communication scholar, marketer or psychologist can tell us all about.

Yet they continue to churn out PSAs like the one above: self-righteous, condescending, nagging, gross.

Now that appealing to consumer reason has failed, along with warnings and stern commands, the government tactic is shifting—just like parents, when we don’t obey them!—to rules and regulations. Newer efforts to reduce American soda consumption are portion size caps and soda taxes. But these probably won’t work, either.

I don’t know who that sanctimonious 50 Shades essay would’ve persuaded; the conservative folk who probably weren’t going to see the movie anyway? It’s the same with the glass of fat and the NYC soda ban. For every occasional soda sipper who came to her senses and corrected course, three more soda lovers probably went out and drank twice as much. Which population was the one at risk?

They say we need to educate people to make healthier food choices. I say we need to seduce them. There’s no other way around Big Soda, or our innate desire to rebel.

Once again, politicians should pay more attention to data.

Ad against NYC's soda ban

*Sept 19, 2015 update: I have since learned more about Google Suggest algorithms and learned that suggestions are partly influenced by prior searches. So maybe Google just knows about my deep love of rebellion. What happens when you try it?

Related Posts:
Actually, Consumers Don’t Need More Nutrition Info on Restaurant Menus
How Health-related Disclaimers are Fooling You
Why Personalized Junk Food Ads are Hard to Resist 


I’m a health writer and graduate student. I'm interested in the wily side of health – self sabotage, persuasion, and why health campaigns so often manage to inadvertently piss people off.

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