Water: The Ethical Enemy of Gatorade?

As I start this post, I recall a World Health Organization (WHO) report that I read not long ago. Childhood obesity is skyrocketing around the world, and the population of children who are obese is 10 times greater than it was 40 years ago. Obesity is not harmless. Obese kids often become obese adults, and on that journey, they develop heart disease, joint problems and diabetes. It’s not a pretty picture.  Which brings us to an ethics question involving popular drinks like Gatorade.

Gatorade started its life merely as a drink for athletes to replenish sodium and potassium. It was a lot easier than chewing on those old-fashioned “horse pills” that we chewed on back in the day. The marketing executives at Gatorade (by the way the brand is currently owned by PepsiCo) realized they had a good thing very early on. It was profitable, popular and “endorsable.” From its humble beginnings, Gatorade has become a world-wide mega-brand, branching out to an entire food line endorsed by the biggest names in sports.

Gatorade – Pushing the brand

Children are aspirational. This is no new fact. Children want to emulate those who are tougher, stronger and quicker. This applies to girls as well as boys. It is also why PepsiCo’s brand managers will gladly pay out tens of millions to the world’s greatest athletes to endorse a drink that is essentially salt, potassium and sweetener in colored water. Will a child of 11 run, dunk and shoot a basketball like Michael Jordan or run like Usain Bolt after gulping down a Gatorade? Of course not. Chances are he or she never will, but that’s not the point. Gatorade wants to convince them they will.

Huge numbers of Gatorade’s audience are kids under 12. They are drinking Gatorade often with junk foods, packing on the obesity pounds. The truth is that Gatorade is a fine product for replenishing electrolytes providing, of course, the children are working out long enough and sweating enough to actually need electrolyte replacement. More often than not, the drink is simply a liquid washed down with snacks. The company knows this.

Recently, the brand got flagged for a violation of the California consumer protection laws. They developed a kid’s “award-winning video game” called “Bolt,” backed by the endorsements of Usain Bolt.

In the video game (again, one of the obesity problems is kid’s playing video games rather than playing real games), Usain Bolt is animated across the video screen. He collects gold coins along the course. It sounds completely harmless except for one problem: he runs faster and faster every time he grabs the Gatorade image, but the minute he comes near water, he slows down to a crawl. In fact, the game instructions read: “Keep your performance level high by avoiding water.”

In a time when diabetes and obesity are soaring in kids under 12, encouraging them to avoid water in favor of Gatorade is an example of unethical advertising to a naïve, unsophisticated demographic.

As a result of the video game, PepsiCo had to pay the California Department of Justice $300,000, of which $120,000 will be used to fund education, teaching kids about the importance of drinking water. It is interesting to note in this settlement that the company did not admit to any wrongdoing, however, it sharply curbs marketing efforts to any demographic where kids under 12 make up more than 30% of the audience.

The game

The “Bolt Game” was estimated to have been played about 87 million times and “harnessed 4 million online fans.” The company that developed the game was widely applauded. They patted themselves on the back that it led to kids hydrating with Gatorade after athletic performances. In real life that is just not happening. The game caused something like

820 million brand impressions but the obesity rates keep rising because children aren’t drinking enough water and making wise food choices. A large bottle of Gatorade may contain nearly 60 mg. of sugar.

Though the game is entertaining in a sedentary kind of way it did not lead to vigorous sports participation or other intense physical activity.

It is very easy to dismiss the California law suit against PepsiCo as being politically-correct and politically motivated, or that it is interference from “Big Bad Government.” It might be a valid argument were it not for the fact that diabetes has exploded among young people especially in ethnic/minority communities. Sometimes a little interference in a good thing.

I have no illusion that PepsiCo quickly recouped the $300,000 in sales, but at least a warning shot was fired. Someone had to step up on behalf of the children.

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Posted by Chuck Gallagher in ethics and tagged , , , , , .

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