The Huffington Post has gotten its hands on documents that show while Coca-Cola was supporting Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) it was also a member of the American Beverage Institute (ABI). The ABI, in trying to live up to its stated mission of “the protection of responsible on-premise consumption of adult beverages” has supported measures that would lower the legal blood-alcohol limits and fought against measures that would raise taxes on alcohol and institute sobriety checkpoints. An op-ed highlighted on the About Us page right now is from the October 24, 2013 issue of the Las Vegas Review-Journal called “Lower blood-alcohol limits won’t curb drunk driving deaths.”
When questioned about the support, Coke spokesperson Kirsten Witt told HuffPo, “On behalf of our customers, Coca-Cola has provided support to ABI over the years. We are not engaged in ABI advocacy efforts.” According to the HuffPo story, the annual membership dues at ABI are in “… between $2,500 a year (for companies with under $1 billion in sales that attend no meetings) to $45,000 a year (for those with $2 billion in sales that attend the three ABI meetings a year)” for non-alcohol companies. Dues vary for restaurants, retailers, companies that sell non-alcoholic beverages and businesses that sell alcohol.
MADD’s chief government affairs officer J.T. Griffin said of the situation, “It is a little shocking. I guess it is unfortunate. But it certainly is their right.”
Griffin is right. It’s totally Coke’s right to support both. But with customers looking for authenticity, it calls the company’s brand into question.
The article notes that, especially in the past, MADD and ABI have clashed on many issues. And ABI’s work has been called out because it operates under a thick cloak of secrecy, choosing not to reveal its members, presumably saving them any backlash that could come from the policies they endorse. HuffPo provides a list that they gathered between 2011 and 2013.
In 1996 and 1997, Coca-Cola launched fundraising campaigns through sales of products at Wal-Mart and in 2012 praised MADD for its efforts.
It looks good for Coke to support MADD. And certainly, mothers doing the weekly grocery shopping are a key target market for Coke products. But its membership in ABI paints Coke in a self-serving light, playing both sides of the issue for maximum benefit. All that goodwill that Coke tries to foster — its Facebook page is a virtual ode to its customers and the joy they get from drinking a Coke — is undermined by this news. And the statement from Coke’s spokesperson does nothing to shed light on how the company is helping its customers by being a member of ABI.
Coke is a business so no one is saying that it can’t act in its own interests. But when you’re coming out behind an advocacy organization like MADD, it’s important that the brand truly believe the message its spreading. You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth.