Data: in a country where 80 liters of soft drinks are consumed per capita, there are 620,000 primary school children who receive Coca Cola marketing at school, which uses 6 public hospitals to promote its products.
Coca Cola visitors appeared at Penna Hospital about three years ago. For the doctor Fernando D’Ippolito, the business program coincided with a special moment: recently received, he was lucky and true with his vocation, with that lucid attention of the premieres that serves to confront the theory with what is around. He was doing the residency in general medicine because he wanted to dedicate himself to what he does now: primary care for families who do not have access to health care because they basically have nothing: no gas, no safe water, no fresh food, no streets for those that transit buses or ambulances. He quickly realized that he had come to the perfect place.
A few blocks from the hospital is Villa 21-24, the most important in the Federal Capital: between Barracas and Pompeya, eight blocks where 60 thousand people live. His work opened like a kaleidoscope to needs: guards, hospitalizations, outpatient clinics and even the supervision of nutrition courses and workshops that he was sure could improve their lives. “It is among the most urgent problems they have: food and its consequences. We are talking about children who have lunch with chicitos with juice, continue with a hot dog, cookies and soda. Food, food: hopefully at night, "says D’Ippolito now in a tone that he surely did not have three years ago: exhausted. Not resigned, rather without the strength to activate the desire; that intimate tragedy that is detonated when one comes across something worse every time. “I can't quite say why but I have the numbers that make it clear: since I started, people weigh more, not less, they suffer because they cannot adequately treat their diabetes or hypertension. They try hard, they do what they can, but they quickly get demoralized. More if they are boys ”.
The effort and the frustration: that was what he saw over and over again, especially when he was dealing with one of the simplest and most important practices in pediatrics, controlling the height and weight of children.
It was during one of these practices, on any given weekday, that he met the company representative for the first time. She was a young girl, and she brought gifts; And in a public hospital like that, where there is always a lack of everything, someone who brings something, whatever it is, is well received. "If I did not misunderstand, it was a nutritionist, and as medical sales representatives usually do, she would hand over the material, but first she would ask for a signature and stamp."
Material that the company delivered two years ago: recipe books with the brand's logo. Coca Cola in red and below the classic white for the doctor to indicate, what? An antibiotic? A painkiller? A diet?
"But the other one is worse: look," says D’Ippolito and shows the diploma for good behavior. "Pit …. You are awarded this diploma because the Dr / Dra… .. asked you to 1. Stick out your tongue, 2. Cough or 3. Take a deep breath; AND HE DID IT WITHOUT CRYING OR PROTESTING ”, says the painting. Thus: with the spaces to complete, the instructions, and the capital letters. With a smiling heart and with the logo in italics of the brand, faced with the signature of the professional who completes it.
"When I received it I was alarmed," he says. “I was alarmed because it is a brand directly linked to the diseases that doctors try to heal, such as obesity in children, and because they were handing out a certificate applauding obedience to a conduct order. It's Coca Cola telling a boy how to behave ”.
On guard and at school
Today the material that remains from then is not the only one that can be found in the hospital. At the entrance of the guard that receives 120 thousand patients a year, Coca Cola left a 2016 almanac that reveals other forms of unconventional advertising that inevitably or strategically reach that target to which they assure they no longer speak: those under 12. Among the typical actions - taking care of water, recycling containers, working with the communities where they establish their plants - the booklet also reports on the intercollegiate dance competition, Baila Fanta and the intercollegiate soccer tournament, Copa Coca Cola. Two actions that have been carried out for years, because they serve the brand to underline the message that they embrace the strongest: you have to move. It does not matter that a bottle of soda has 66 grams of sugar: if children dance, jump, run behind a ball, there are those who say they burn it, beat calories, do not get fat, and can, the next day, continue drinking .
Active life, healthy life, happy life.
They also emphasize this in the education program with which they managed since 2008 to enter public schools in 16 provinces with an estimated reach of 620 thousand children. Let's Play It is called and it was developed by the brand through the Alimentaria Foundation and endorsed by the Olympic Committee and the Argentine Federation of Cardiology. “With the consent of provincial educational authorities, teachers are trained and classroom and sports material is delivered for recess. It is the school authorities and their teachers who implement the program. In accordance with our global guidelines for responsible marketing, this program is carried out without the presence of our brands in front of the students, ”says Francisco Do Pico, who a year ago went from being in charge of communication at Monsanto to occupying a similar chair at Coca Cola. where it seems that they do not believe that something that says it was made "for Coca Cola Argentina" has a brand presence.
“Although no more than what I found out later,” says D’Ippolito, opening the door to an enigma that no one seems willing to solve: “Coca visitors come to the hospital almost every month. It is not known who lets them in or what the purpose is: they hand out brochures, speak to doctors, collect signatures and stamps. Maybe they do market research. Or statistics. Or they are looking for partner hospitals, how do you know?
We ask them.
“Coca-Cola de Argentina exclusively provides information on the ingredients of its products. The main objective of the relationship with health professionals is to listen to them and respond to their concerns regarding the products and ingredients of the company's portfolio, always using information based on available scientific evidence and explained by health professionals ”, says Do Pico, not without first clarifying that medical sales representatives are not because for Coca, “the function of a medical sales representative is to promote prescription drugs, in order to obtain their prescription. For this purpose they are hired by pharmaceutical laboratories ”.
In the office
The Penna Hospital, the Fernández, the Gutiérrez, the Garrahan, the Güemes and the Italian Hospital: Coca Cola manages to enter all of them, and in all of them, the doctors -mainly the pediatricians who tend to be the most required- call the company's nutritionists , the visitors. There is no one who has not crossed them, has not been surprised, and has not ended up accepting that although at first it was something almost offensive - Coca Cola entering the hospitals! - at the end as it is about kind people asking for a few minutes just On whom their salary depends, they open the door of their offices and lend them a little of the time they hardly have.
“I receive them for education, because I feel sorry to leave them out there. But I never understood the purpose of the visit: that precisely that company, Coca Cola, is interested in wanting to talk to doctors when it is obvious that we are not going to tell the boys their drinks ”.
"They told me about sodium in water"
"To me of sugar"
"To me from corn syrup"
"To me from aspartame"
"To me of joy."
"Hydration to me"
Trying to understand the most controversial marketing strategy of the moment is not easy. But it can be entertaining.
The science of marketing
The first time Vanesa Miquel came across the matter was through a colleague who had been hired by Coca Cola. Nutritionist she also understood everything: the job opportunity in a context that always seems difficult and how perfect it would be for the brand if it turned out well. Then he did not hesitate. As he was a teacher at the University of Concepción del Uruguay, in Rosario, he thought that in order to dismantle the trap, which ends up exploding in no less than bodies that fall ill a little earlier year after year, expose it in front of his students. "I taught them using that material that is spectacular to develop critical thinking: both the content and the purpose of the brand and professional ethics are exposed in those brochures."
Because what nutritionists give to doctors, what Do Pico calls information based on scientific evidence, are brochures and booklets that summarize the company's point of view on different topics, with references to documents that support them.
There it is on illustration paper The Science of Sugars: 24 pages in which conflictive topics are presented, such as sugar and high fructose corn syrup, increasingly identified as those responsible for the obesity and type diabetes pandemics 2, which in some countries reach half the population and in others it is only a matter of time, but with a dialectical cunning that could lead to incredible conclusions. "Carbohydrates - the sugars, starches, and fibers found in fruits, vegetables, cereals, and dairy products - are an important part of a healthy diet (...) Drinks sweetened with caloric sweeteners supply calories - energy - from sugars that they are simple carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are essential nutrients for life ”.
If A is similar to B, and B is a little bit like C, is A equal to C? It definitely holds up this booklet page by page.
While different scientific journals have published studies that show that non-caloric sweeteners not only do not reduce sugar consumption, but also add substances such as aspartame, cyclamate or acezulfame K that probably trigger similar problems such as weight gain, Coca brings closer to the Doctors a colorful collage that flatly denies new paradigms.
In other installments, the bet is on hydration: the importance of attending to it before thirst occurs (which many times, they say, is late) and of satiating it with drinks that are better flavored because that way the boys "drink between 45 and 50 percent more liquid than if it is just water ”.
"And they do it with references: that surprised me," says Miquel, "it's a clever move by the brand: they do their own reading of different scientific publications to advertise."
Undoubtedly, that strategy that Coca Cola has been able to deploy, even creating institutes and societies, is the most questionable.
The Coca Cola visitors whom they prefer not to call that have, like any medical visitor, objectives: a number of professionals to talk to, relationships to establish and material that in turn they ask them to distribute among their patients to in order to expand nutrition education. Thus, the pediatric offices of the public hospitals of our country have pylons of infomercial sheets that of course lead to questions, how it is possible that they enter, that they occupy the time of the doctors, that they leave things.
"It's crazy," says Sergio Auger, who is also a doctor until December was the director of the Santojanni hospital and since then he has been the coordinator of Hospitals of the Ministry of Health. “For someone to enter a public hospital, there must be a written agreement with the management. It is not that whoever comes to mind with a cart to offer their products can happen.
Do you know any?
"No. In my management, they never approached that company to propose something like this to me. Nor am I aware that there is a framework agreement within the Ministry that enables it. And if they proposed it to me, I wouldn't accept it ”.
Does Coca Cola have an agreement with the public sector in Argentina?
No, says Do Pico.
“There is no agreement”.
"If there is, nobody wants to make it public."
"I think they come in just like that."
"Come light and pass."
What makes sick
The latest report on non-communicable diseases from the Ministry of Health (published in February 2016), which ranks overweight as one of the most serious problems facing the country, with the regional record of obese children under 5 years of age, says that there is a proven association between weight gain and ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks. Of these in particular, he maintains that:
It is estimated that in 2010 the consumption of sugary drinks caused 184 thousand deaths worldwide. 133 thousand due to diabetes, 45 thousand due to cardiovascular diseases and 6,450 due to some types of cancer.
The largest number of these deaths occurred in Latin America.
In Argentina, for every million adults, there are 74 who die from the consumption of sugary drinks: it is one of the countries with the highest mortality attributed to the consumption of sugary drinks in the region.
In our country, the per capita consumption of beverages produced by the largest soft drink company in 2011 was 80 liters: 2.5 times more than in 1991 and 1.5 times more than in 2001.
The largest company is of course Coca Cola, which in broad daylight is on the loose in hospitals, wandering around doctors' offices and trying to convince doctors that they are not only not a problem, they are almost the solution.
Will Jorge Lemus, the same Minister of Health who authorizes the publication of a report with this forcefulness, allow this type of promotion to continue?