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Made to Stick: The Birth of a Sticky Idea

After seeing a strikingly effective ad campaign, Dan Heath and Chip Heath wonder whether sodas will be the next cigarettes.

THE FAT SIDE OF LIFE: This eye-catching campaign in New York is leading the charge to stigmatize soda. | Courtesy of New York City Health Department
THE FAT SIDE OF LIFE: This eye-catching campaign in New York is leading the charge to stigmatize soda. | Courtesy of New York City Health Department

If you were on a New York subway last fall, you might have noticed a provocative ad that showed soda being poured from a plastic bottle into a tumbler. By the time the soda hit the tumbler, it had transformed into fat — globby, disgusting, yellow-orange human fat, which pooled in the bottom of the glass and burped over the brim. The headline: "Are You Pouring on the Pounds?"

You would have regretted encountering this ad with a mouthful of cheese Danish.

The ad struck a chord. New Yorkers couldn't stop talking about it, and it was everywhere in the media. It was, in fact, the first punch landed in what may be a 10-round fight against sugary soda.

We are witnessing the birth of a sticky idea. So three questions: Why did the ad campaign stick? Is it fair? And what would you do next if you were a soda executive?

It's no surprise why the ad stuck: It packed an emotional punch. It abandoned the typical statistico-caloric factoids about soda. Instead, it made you want to vomit. That's what sticky ideas do — they make people feel. Change comes from feeling, not facts. Furthermore, the ad is masterfully simple: Sugary soda equals fat.

Not surprisingly, the soda companies punched back. American Beverage Association PR representative Kevin Keane said of the ad, "It's absurd and over the top and unfortunately is going to undermine efforts to educate about a serious and complex issue like obesity." Is Keane right? Are soda companies getting blamed unfairly?

The soda companies say, look, people eat and drink lots of stuff. A calorie is a calorie. Why single out sodas rather than burgers or fries or, for that matter, bananas? Why reduce a multivariate equation (obesity) to a single variable (soda)?

That's a fair point — it's certainly true that a 200-calorie soda isn't more "culpable" for obesity than a 200-calorie bag of chips. But here's another way to think about it. Imagine your business is losing money and you need to save some dollars. Then you discover that every weekend, your sales reps are spending thousands of dollars renting the Champagne Room at the local strip parlor for "business development." It might occur to you that the Champagne Room is a pretty good place to start cutting back. Your reps would squawk, of course: "A dollar is a dollar! Why single out our dollars?" Well, duh.

That's why it's a bit disingenuous to claim that a "calorie is a calorie." No one's disputing that. Public-health officials are making a different argument, namely, that sodas are the low-hanging fruit in the obesity battle. (Low-hanging fat?) A small behavioral change — ditching sugary sodas — would have a big impact on health.

But come on, are sodas really so bad? Even coffee drinkers like to use a little sugar. Should we demonize coffee, too? Well, as a thought experiment, imagine that you're in the office kitchen as a colleague adds some sugar to his coffee. As you watch, he adds a teaspoon. And then another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another.And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. (Dude, want some coffee with your sugar?)

Absurd, right? Nope, that's the amount of sugar that's in a 20-ounce soda. Except add another half-teaspoon.

It's evidence, not meanness, that led New York City public-health officials to focus on sodas rather than raisins. Here are the facts: 1) Drinking one can of soda per day can add as much as 10 pounds to your weight in a single year. 2) Studies have shown that people do not eat less food when they drink more calories. Beverage calories are extra calories. 3) "For each extra can or glass of sugared beverage consumed per day, the likelihood of a child becoming obese increases by 60%," according to an article coauthored by a Yale professor and a former health commissioner. 4) And meanwhile, what's the case for soda? Let's face it: A Snickers is a nutritional wonderland compared to a Coke.

How should soda executives respond to this rough treatment? So far, they seem to be trying to practice the art of misdirection. A recent op-ed by Coca-Cola's CEO, for instance, says don't blame Coke for obesity: You sedentary Americans need to exercise more!

To the soda-company executives we say, Why fight this? You've done a brilliant job over the past 20 years of diversifying into anything drinkable — water and juice and tea and diet soda. You have absolutely nothing to lose. Trust us: People won't switch from Pepsi to tap water. They'll switch from Pepsi to Diet Pepsi. You'll just take a dollar out of one pocket and put it in another.

But if you keep speaking like the Defenders of High-Fructose Corn Syrup, then you might as well get sized for your black hats. Just picture yourself in front of Congress, like the cigarette execs who raised their hands to swear that cigarettes were not a health risk. Except you'd be attesting that Dr Pepper is part of a "balanced diet." Is that the future you want?

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the best-selling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Their new book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, is available now.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.