This coke’s for you, this joke’s on you

I haven’t written in a while, but the other night I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t stop thinking about Coca Cola’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion training. Maybe it was the memes circling the internet or talk show/podcast pundits breaking it down, but for whatever reason it was top of mind.

The next day I went to the Coca Cola website and also looked at their foundation where they proudly state: 

“The Coca-Cola Foundation is providing additional funding and grants to communities and organizations in response to Coronavirus. To date, over $55M has been provided to support local organizations and vulnerable communities during these times.” 

-Coca-Cola Foundation website

You can read more on their website.

Coca Cola is a great case study in what’s wrong with America today. Right now, you might be like what did she just say? I thought she was highlighting some really nice things like DEI and charitable giving for COVID-19.

But really what we need to examine further is the nefarious way that corporations like Coca Cola play two ends against the middle. Maximizing profits often at the expense of the poor and minority communities. The best way to explain it is to break it down into a few parts.

  1. Corporate virtue we’re open for business signaling with paid advertising targeted at poor and minority communities
  2. The insidious use of a foundation front to court minorities
  3. Over consumption of sugary drinks can lead to obesity and obese people are 10 times more likely to die of COVID-19

Coca Cola exercises an extremely calculated approach in strategically targeting poor and minority communities on multiple fronts – DEI programs, advertising and charitable giving. Which is pretty dark, but if that isn’t dark enough – it also takes an increasingly precious resource, water, and turns it into junk. But that’s for another blog post.

Corporate virtue we’re open for business signaling

Using the word virtue next to corporate just feels dirty. It’s another example of how far the free market has pushed its way into societal norms. Let’s not perpetuate it any further. The concept of “corporate virtue signaling” when it relates to DEI or charitable giving in poor communities is sort of like the modern day version of saying we’re here, we’re open for business, and we’re ready to take your money. 

Coca Cola doesn’t discriminate, but they do pick and choose how they spend their advertising budget. They spend a boatload of money targeting two groups in particular:

  • Minority communities
  • Poor people

A simple Google search result will turn up tons of hits from the last decade about how soda companies target minorities, but I found these charts from Bloomberg a good visual aid.


Why spend so much money advertising to minorities over whites? Probably a few reasons, but one of them must be linked to the fact that many African Americans and Hispanics living in poverty also live in areas that are deemed to be food deserts. A food desert is a place with limited access to fresh foods or a grocery store. 

“When comparing communities with similar poverty rates, she discovered that black and Hispanic neighborhoods have fewer large supermarkets and more small grocery stores than their white counterparts. Bursting with junk-food options, these smaller establishments rarely offer the healthy whole-grain foods, dairy products, or fresh fruits and veggies that a supermarket would provide.”


So when a black or hispanic child or teen runs to the corner store their options are probably few – pepsi or coke, fritos or doritos, snickers or twix and the chances that they pick up the brand that they’ve seen the ads for is more likely.

Not only does Coca Cola target minorities, it also focuses on poor people. A 2018 study discovered that stores in New York were more than four times as likely to have soda marketing displays during the first nine days of the month, which is the window when food stamps go out.

A 7-Eleven poster advertises
consumers’ ability to purchase Coke
using SNAP benefits.

Did you know that approximately 10% of SNAP benefits go to purchasing sugary drinks? Coca Cola pays for advertising and essentially gets a huge government subsidy. 

The insidious use of the foundation to court minorities

If it wasn’t enough to drown the poor and minorities in a deluge of Coca Cola advertising targeted at them, Coca Cola is much more devious with its use of its foundation.  

Foundations are a whole other beast that deserve their own blog post or series of blog posts, but the fact that they exist in America in the capacity that they do shows how much power private capital and wealthy individuals exude in this country. You won’t find as many foundations in Europe because the government taxes wealth accordingly and uses that money to fund social programs. 

It’s fitting that the Kresge Foundation funded research that culminated in a scathing report on the Coca Cola Foundation. Foundations bashing foundations isn’t very inclusive, is it? But regardless of whether or not you think the Kresge Foundation should have been more inclusive of its Coca Cola Foundation peer, their report turned up some juicy findings. I’m not even going to bother re-summarizing because they summed it up so well in their executive summary.

Soda companies use philanthropy strategically to: 

Link their brands to health and wellness rather than illness and obesity 

Create partnerships with respected health and minority groups to win allies, silence potential critics, and influence public health policy decisions 

Garner public trust and goodwill to increase brand awareness and brand loyalty

Court growing minority populations to increase sales and profits

You can read (or skim) the full report here if you’re interested in getting all of the sugary details. But the foundation is set up to build relationships and brand loyalty in these minority communities, which undoubtedly contributes to even more purchases and consumption of the sugary soft drink.

The Foundation has donated $55 million toward Coronavirus relief. After doing a quick keyword search on the 129 COVID-19 relief grants on the foundation page only 2 were related to food banks in the United States, 0 were related to food deserts, 0 were related to fitness, and 0 were related to obesity.

I thought well maybe it’s just the COVID-19 relief giving, but after checking their general foundation report, I didn’t see any health related areas.

Which brings me to my third and final point, an over indulgence of sugary drinks can make you fat.

Over consumption of sugary drinks can lead to obesity and obese people are 10 times more likely to die of COVID-19

This is the zinger, the real hum dinger. Coca Cola, like other sugary drinks, can contribute to making people fat, which can cause a litany of other obesity related health issues. With Coca Cola targeting the poor and minorities, it should come as no surprise that the poor and the minority communities drink the most sugary drinks. With many members of these communities’ diets based on overly processed junk food, stats like these should come as no surprise.

  • In contrast to international trends, people in America who live in the most poverty-dense counties are those most prone to obesity (Fig. 1A). Counties with poverty rates of >35% have obesity rates 145% greater than wealthy counties. – ADA
  • Non-Hispanic Black adults (49.6%) had the highest age-adjusted prevalence of obesity, followed by Hispanic adults (44.8%), non-Hispanic White adults (42.2%) and non-Hispanic Asian adults (17.4%) – CDC

These types of obesity-associated chronic disease account for 70% of U.S. health costs. And a large portion of obese Americans happen to be in poverty and on Medicaid so there is government subsidy number two in this short blog post.

Some people treat their diets and bodies with reckless abandon and the American taxpayers foot the bill. Yet another topic that deserves it’s own book, but if we could take better responsibility for our individual health and fitness, cut down the massive obesity rates, then we might be able to cut healthcare demand and costs down to something that would allow a single payer system to be a viable alternative to our current system. But that’s for another day, back to Coca Cola…

Finally, the audacity that Coca Cola has to tout it’s Coronavirus relief spending on its foundation website is beyond words. Drinking sugary drinks regularly is likely to lead to obesity and if you’re obese, you’re 10x more likely to die of COVID-19. 

So we live in an America where Coca Cola can throw up some DEI principles on its website, pay for a DEI training that was mocked but largely faded away, but then at the same time, be advertising and peddling sugary drinks that can be detrimental to people’s health. A diet that includes a large portion of sugary drinks is likely to cause the types of comorbidities that end up being the deciding factor between life and death for many people with COVID-19 and no one is talking about that.

You do a quick search online and you’ll see conservative and liberal news outlets have been reporting on the diversity training.

But no one is talking about the elephant in the room. We keep hearing about how poor and minority communities are the hardest hit by this pandemic. Then we hear about how comorbidities like obesity and diabetes greatly increase the mortality rate. But no one wants to connect the dots.

So instead we’ll give Coke a hard time for their “be less white” training gaffe versus putting pressure on them to put some of their money back into health and fitness education. The government will talk about an equity driven approach to distributing the vaccine, pay out billions in SNAP and Medicare expenses, but they do little to promote public health education and fitness initiatives or to pass legislation banning the purchase of sugary drinks with SNAP benefits.

Maybe one day, we’ll live in an America where people are more outraged over the sugar and caloric content of a Coca Cola then the color of someone’s skin until then we’ll all keep looking at the dots hoping that someone would connect them.

p.s. If you want a Coca Cola, have a Coca Cola. If you want a twelve pack of Coca Cola, have a twelve pack. It’s a free country. We’re responsible for our own health and fitness. But let’s stop subsidizing it.

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