Public Health Groups Target Michael Jordan Gatorade Ad

Ad features athlete during 'flu game'

A Gatorade ad showing Michael Jordan sipping the sports drink as he fights the flu and a 103-degree fever during the 1997 NBA Finals is taking Gatorade's health claims too far, according to six public health groups. In a complaint filed Monday with the Federal Trade Commission, the groups, led by the Public Health Advocacy Institute, call for the agency to investigate and prevent further distribution of the teen-targeted ad.

In the 30-second spot and on the Gatorade website, Jordan is shown holding and drinking from a Gatorade cup. On the website, Gatorade copy reads:  "We see Jordan constantly hydrating with Gatorade and returning to the court as we hear Coach Jackson reveal how Jordan was able to persist—he had the will to win and the fuel to help him do it."

"The problem with the ad is it's telling teens to consume Gatorade to enhance their performance if they're ill," said Cara Wilking, the senior staff attorney for Public Health Advocacy Institute, who wrote the FTC complaint. "It encourages dangerous behavior."

The ad, part of PepsiCo's Win From Within campaign, premiered during the recent NBA All-Stars Game and is still running in programs targeting teens such as MTV, Comedy Channel, Fuse and ESPN.

"[Gatorade] has done a brilliant job positioning sports drinks as healthy," said Margo Wootan, the director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which also signed the FTC complaint. "But it's not going to help you cure the flu."

The FTC has taken a harder line with advertisers over health-related claims, a direction it signaled in a $25 million settlement with Reebok last September. 

But even if the FTC doesn't act, the complaint could force Gatorade to pull the ad, Wilking said. "Typically what happens, the companies will often stop running the ad before any action is taken by the FTC," she said.

Other groups that signed the complaint are Berkeley Media Studies Group, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, Public Health Institute and the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. All six are part of the Food Marketing Work Group, a coalition that aggressively advocates that the government adopt new food marketing guidelines targeting children and teens.

Though federal guidelines were put on hold in the face of successful lobbying by advertisers and marketers, public health groups haven't lost hope that the FTC might take action in specific cases.

"This is an opportunity for the FTC to look at a real problem area in kids' diets," said Wootan.

A spokeswoman for the FTC said, "We've received [the complaint] and we will review it."

Gatorade also said it was reviewing the complaint, but denied comment.