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Coca-Cola’s Assault on Tap Water

While public health advocates have sung the praises of tap water for years, Coca-Cola has been focusing on its own covert assault on the affordable, healthful, and refreshing beverage. Unbeknownst to many in the nutrition and public health world, the soft drink giant launched a  “Cap the Tap” program–aimed at restaurants–in 2010, described in the following manner on the Coke Solutions Web site:

Capture Lost Revenue By Turning Off the Tap.

Every time your business fills a cup or glass with tap water, it pours potential profits down the drain. The good news: Cap the Tap™–a program available through your Coca-Cola representative–changes these dynamics by teaching crew members or wait staff suggestive selling techniques to convert requests for tap water into orders for revenue-generating beverages.

Coca-Cola cites a 2006 tap water usage study to point out the obvious–that consumers drink tap water because of habit, health concerns or price sensitivity.

In response to that, Coca-Cola suggests restaurant waitstaff “turn off the tap” and offers to teach servers how to suggest “profitable beverages” to consumers, citing free refills. For those who truly want tap water, Coca-Cola suggests that servers push bottled water (don’t forget that Coke owns the bottled water brand Dasani), diet sodas, iced teas, and smoothies.

Interestingly–and, most likely, strategically–information about the program is not as easy to come across online as the many health initiatives Coca-Cola eagerly announces with self-congratulatory press releases. “Cap the Tap” includes a manager’s guide, a backroom poster (which “educates crew and reminds them when and how to suggestively sell beverages”) and a participants’ guide, which “offers insights to help servers remember the facts and impact of suggestive selling.”

All this from a company with its own “Health and Wellness Institute” and whose CEO, Muhtar Kent, has gone on record to say, with a straight face no less, that “obesity is today’s most challenging health issue [and] it is a global societal problem which will take all of us working together and doing our part.”

It’s hard to understand how incentivizing restaurant employees to push empty calories on restaurant patrons fits into the “working together” model. Herein lies the inherent problem that accompanies “working with” Big Food; most health advocates’ suggested changes and policies pose a threat to its profits.

Interestingly, “Cap the Tap” is just one of a few similar campaigns. Pen Williamson, a graphic designer and illustrator who did some work for Coca-Cola while at creative agency BFG Communications, has posted design templates of different campaigns he helped design, including “Cap the Tap,” “Get Your Fill,” and “Suggest More and Score.” (The latter two were also “suggestive selling” campaigns that tried to get restaurant waitstaff to compete to see who could essentially push the most Coca-Cola products; alas, they no longer appear on the Coke Solutions Web site).

It’s no wonder Coca-Cola was so willing to join the First Lady’s “Drink Up” campaign, which recommended that Americans drink more water (sadly not “less soda” though), but did not specify or prioritize tap water.

It should not come as a surprise that the food and beverage industry will do whatever it can to maximize profits. However, a significant problem arises when this sort of campaign is created by a company that talks about its “commitments” to health and enjoys positive publicity from its partnerships with (or support of) health organizations, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Society of Nutrition, and The Obesity Society.

“Cap the Tap” is a perfect example of the doublespeak that Big Food and Big Soda often employ. The carefully calculated veneer of wanting to be “part of the solution” and “offering choices” to consumers is negated by efforts like this one, which basically paints tap water as an enemy to be defeated. Of course, the health-conscious facade has some benefits (one perk of partnering with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is that Coca-Cola can teach continuing education webinars to dietitians).

Remember that while Coca-Cola likes to point to its health-oriented initiatives, some of its executives have publicly stated they don’t believe in empty calories, that much of the population “relies” on the carbohydrates (AKA: sugar) in soda, and that a 32-ounce Powerade after lacrosse practice is a perfectly fine beverage for a teenager.

It is crucial for health advocates to remain vigilant to the food and beverage industry’s full array of tactics, not just the seemingly agreeable and “health-conscious” front that is employed by necessity. Otherwise, we risk having our efforts be stampeded by an industry that prioritizes profits over health.

Photo: Child drinking tap water, by Shutterstock

17 thoughts on “Coca-Cola’s Assault on Tap Water

  1. I didn’t realize this has been going on since 2010. I can’t remember which restaurant we were at when it
    happened but my kids picked up on the server phrasing it as “Which ice cold Coke product would you like today?” Now that I know it’s a Coca-Cola rewards program, I’ll make a point of telling the waiter I don’t appreciate having Coke promoted in front of my kids, will tip less and not return. Do you know if PepsiCo is doing a similar thing too?

  2. Refined sugar is a drug and High Fructose Corn Syrup is a toxin.
    With our food industry trying to kill us, who needs enemies…

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  4. For all of the angst about Coke trying to sell more Coca-Cola products at restaurants, this is not surprise.

    Coca-Cola has been in business for over a century selling flavored sugary water. It’s not a conspiracy that they’re trying to sell more of it. If you’re at a restaurant where the waiter or waitress is trying to encourage you to drink more soda pop, how likely is it that the rest of the menu items aren’t full of industrially created food that’s jammed with processed wheat and corn, high-fructose corn syrup, fat of various types, and food processing byproducts that show up as an internal adhesive, stabilizer, or flavoring? If you’re really trying to improve the eating habits of your family, maybe you should eat somewhere else?

    If you’re really worried about your food intake, worry about what you’re putting in, not what Coke’s doing.

  5. There are several restaurants in our town that happily serve tap water, knowing that its strong chlorinated taste is actually hard to drink, and its occasional discoloration in the spring both increase the tendency to buy bottled water. I have asked some of them to either filter their water or provide water from a water cooler, but they do not change anything, presumably because they see it as an unnecessary expense. So I show my displeasure by going elsewhere.

  6. Casey, while that phrasing would annoy me no end, please do not penalize the waiter for following the restaurant’s rules. Talk to the manager or write to the owner, but don’t take money out of the waiter’s pocket for something s/he has no control over.

  7. I live in Florida, and unfortunately our tap water tastes horrible – very hard and heavily chlorinated. The filter in my refrigerator makes it sort of acceptable, but I prefer the taste of a spring water which is sold in bottles (not Dasany).
    I don’t drink Coke or Pepsi.

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  10. @Casey – It would be a better strategy to make that statement to the manager of the restaurant. Even if there are incentives for pushing the most product, failure to “upsell’ usually means no raise, and possibly a bad evaluation. Please don’t penalize the server for having to carry out the policies of the restaurant.

  11. This is just pathetic, aimed at people who have their lives stuck inside of the system. Good luck.

    “Cap the Tap”, are you kidding me?

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