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January 03, 2002
Harry Potter Hawks Coke, Inciting Ire Amongst Fans and Consumer Advocates Alike
    by William Baue

Coca-Cola secured global marketing rights to the Harry Potter image, a move more likely to increase obesity than to promote literacy, according to children's health advocates.


Harry Potter may have rescued children's literacy from extinction by inspiring kids to read the series of books written by J. K. Rowling. However, his influential status may prove counterproductive now that he is the centerpiece of a Coca-Cola marketing campaign. Children's health advocates worry that Harry Potter will inspire kids to drink more Coca-Cola, a beverage they consider unhealthy due to its high concentrations of sugar.

In February 2001, the Coca-Cola Company (ticker: KO) reportedly paid $150 million to Warner Brothers Pictures, the producer of the Harry Potter movie, for sole rights to use Harry Potter in Coke's global marketing. Ms. Rowling reportedly received $15 million in the deal. The promotional advertising campaign, purportedly the costliest movie tie-in ever, promotes children's literacy while simultaneously pushing Coke sales.

"No one really believes that Coca-Cola is spending $150 million just to get kids to read," wrote Michael F. Jacobson in a letter to Ms. Rowling. Mr. Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), created SaveHarry.com as an Internet-based campaign against the Coke-Harry Potter connection. "Coke's primary effort is to use your literary creation to aggressively market junk food to kids," Mr. Jacobson continued.

SaveHarry.com informs visitors of the hazards of soft drinks, pointing out that one 12-ounce can typically contains about ten teaspoons of refined sugar. The site also documents the rise of teenage obesity, attributing this trend in part to the concurrent rise in soft drink consumption. SaveHarry.com cites a U.S. Department of Agriculture study chronicling how kids drank twice as much milk as soda 20 years ago, a trend that has flip-flopped over the past two decades--kids now drink twice as much soda as milk.

"It's outrageous that Coca-Cola is using the magic of Harry Potter to lure kids to drink more soda pop. Consumption of soft drinks has soared over the past two decades, contributing to the doubling in the percentage of obese teenagers," said Dr. Patience White, professor of medicine and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical Center. "That obesity epidemic is fueling a diabetes epidemic."

Ms. Rowling has received more than 16,000 letters as a result of the SaveHarry campaign, including one co-signed by 56 professors, physicians, and social activists. However, the majority of letters come from earnest Harry Potter fans, many of them children.

"I once thought that Harry Potter was all about the reader's enjoyment. But now, with this Coca-Cola deal, it seems like it is all about money," wrote ten-year-old Zach A. from Maine in a letter to Ms. Rowling. "It's like telling all us children that soft drinks are good."

Coke launched its "Live the Magic" marketing campaign to coincide with Warner Brothers' November 16, 2001 release of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." As a social component of the campaign, Coke will make a donation to the "Reading Is Fundamental" literacy initiative of six million dollars-less than half what Coke purportedly paid Ms. Rowling, and less than one percent of Coke's marketing budget, according to SaveHarry.com. This contribution will fund the purchase of 10,000 classroom libraries consisting of 100 hardcover books placed in underserved communities.

In addition to promoting children's literacy, Coke hopes the Harry Potter phenomenon will jumpstart sales, which slumped from $4.1 billion worldwide in 1997 to $2.17 billion in 2000. Icons from the Harry Potter cosmology will grace a variety of paraphernalia, including packaging, in-store displays, and web-sites, among other things. Coke plans to plaster Harry Potter's likeness on some 850 million packages.

This fusion of Harry Potter imagery with Coca-Cola products worries children's health advocates, as kids may not be able to discern the literacy promotion beneath the surface layer of product advertisement.

"It is wrong to use the power of children's love of 'Harry Potter' to sell Coke," said Diane Levin, professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts. "Children trust Harry--and don't have the full cognitive ability to separate that trust from the exploitative power of the Coke message."

 

 
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