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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

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.

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.

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

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13 Comments

  • Andrew Turner

    It's remarkable that this came up.

    A friend of mine refuses to drink pop (we're Canadian) on the basis that "...in twenty years, it'll be the cigarettes of today." This is a guy who give his sentiments from the Canadian far north oil patch.

    An idea may be sticky, but it also seems as though this is an idea who's time has come, which makes it sticky. If my friend can say the same thing months ago from an incredibly remote location, then logic would state that the time has come.

    Beyond that, degrees of corporate responsibility is an issue in my mind. Perhaps it could be governed by the context and intent of the advertising situation? A decade or two ago, Coke didn't cause obesity, not because its properties were any different, but because of the context: people were poorer, worked harder physically, and didn't languish in front of computers, video games, and TV. Even in poor countries today, Coke is what it was for us "back then" -- a treat. My brother just got back from Nicaragua and said that an ice cold Coke down there was the best part of a day.

    I hardly drink Coke. I prefer beer. I don't drink much of that, either. Point is, no one forces me to do anything. While there is a degree of corporate responsibility, wouldn't it be better to focus public health efforts on creating lifestyle choices and content that positively reinforces changed behavior? Ie, not some kind of "You drink Coke, you rotten fatty," but rather a "Forget video games and go play ball, you'll be the better for it" type of campaign. Because like everything, even tobacco, moderation is key -- and low-cal is just nasty.

    --
    Andrew Turner, Branding And Marketing Specialist
    Mahout:Lateral Thinking Writ Large
    www.mahout.wordpress.com
    Skype: andrew72441

  • Andrew Turner

    It's remarkable that this came up.

    A friend of mine refuses to drink pop (we're Canadian) on the basis that "...in twenty years, it'll be the cigarettes of today." This is a guy who give his sentiments from the Canadian far north oil patch.

    An idea may be sticky, but it also seems as though this is an idea who's time has come, which makes it sticky. If my friend can say the same thing months ago from an incredibly remote location, then logic would state that the time has come.

    Beyond that, degrees of corporate responsibility is an issue in my mind. Perhaps it could be governed by the context and intent of the advertising situation? A decade or two ago, Coke didn't cause obesity, not because its properties were any different, but because of the context: people were poorer, worked harder physically, and didn't languish in front of computers, video games, and TV. Even in poor countries today, Coke is what it was for us "back then" -- a treat. My brother just got back from Nicaragua and said that an ice cold Coke down there was the best part of a day.

    I hardly drink Coke. I prefer beer. I don't drink much of that, either. Point is, no one forces me to do anything. While there is a degree of corporate responsibility, wouldn't it be better to focus public health efforts on creating lifestyle choices and content that positively reinforces changed behavior? Ie, not some kind of "You drink Coke, you rotten fatty," but rather a "Forget video games and go play ball, you'll be the better for it" type of campaign. Because like everything, even tobacco, moderation is key -- and low-cal is just nasty.

    --
    Andrew Turner, Branding And Marketing Specialist
    Mahout:Lateral Thinking Writ Large
    www.mahout.wordpress.com
    Skype: andrew72441

  • Andrew Turner

    It's remarkable that this came up.

    A friend of mine refuses to drink pop (we're Canadian) on the basis that "...in twenty years, it'll be the cigarettes of today." This is a guy who give his sentiments from the Canadian far north oil patch.

    An idea may be sticky, but it also seems as though this is an idea who's time has come, which makes it sticky. If my friend can say the same thing months ago from an incredibly remote location, then logic would state that the time has come.

    Beyond that, degrees of corporate responsibility is an issue in my mind. Perhaps it could be governed by the context and intent of the advertising situation? A decade or two ago, Coke didn't cause obesity, not because its properties were any different, but because of the context: people were poorer, worked harder physically, and didn't languish in front of computers, video games, and TV. Even in poor countries today, Coke is what it was for us "back then" -- a treat. My brother just got back from Nicaragua and said that an ice cold Coke down there was the best part of a day.

    I hardly drink Coke. I prefer beer. I don't drink much of that, either. Point is, no one forces me to do anything. While there is a degree of corporate responsibility, wouldn't it be better to focus public health efforts on creating lifestyle choices and content that positively reinforces changed behavior? Ie, not some kind of "You drink Coke, you rotten fatty," but rather a "Forget video games and go play ball, you'll be the better for it" type of campaign. Because like everything, even tobacco, moderation is key -- and low-cal is just nasty.

    --
    Andrew Turner, Branding And Marketing Specialist
    Mahout:Lateral Thinking Writ Large
    www.mahout.wordpress.com
    Skype: andrew72441

  • Andrew Turner

    It's remarkable that this came up.

    A friend of mine refuses to drink pop (we're Canadian) on the basis that "...in twenty years, it'll be the cigarettes of today." This is a guy who give his sentiments from the Canadian far north oil patch.

    An idea may be sticky, but it also seems as though this is an idea who's time has come, which makes it sticky. If my friend can say the same thing months ago from an incredibly remote location, then logic would state that the time has come.

    Beyond that, degrees of corporate responsibility is an issue in my mind. Perhaps it could be governed by the context and intent of the advertising situation? A decade or two ago, Coke didn't cause obesity, not because its properties were any different, but because of the context: people were poorer, worked harder physically, and didn't languish in front of computers, video games, and TV. Even in poor countries today, Coke is what it was for us "back then" -- a treat. My brother just got back from Nicaragua and said that an ice cold Coke down there was the best part of a day.

    I hardly drink Coke. I prefer beer. I don't drink much of that, either. Point is, no one forces me to do anything. While there is a degree of corporate responsibility, wouldn't it be better to focus public health efforts on creating lifestyle choices and content that positively reinforces changed behavior? Ie, not some kind of "You drink Coke, you rotten fatty," but rather a "Forget video games and go play ball, you'll be the better for it" type of campaign. Because like everything, even tobacco, moderation is key -- and low-cal is just nasty.

    --
    Andrew Turner, Branding And Marketing Specialist
    Mahout:Lateral Thinking Writ Large
    www.mahout.wordpress.com
    Skype: andrew72441

  • Andrew Turner

    It's remarkable that this came up.

    A friend of mine refuses to drink pop (we're Canadian) on the basis that "...in twenty years, it'll be the cigarettes of today." This is a guy who give his sentiments from the Canadian far north oil patch.

    An idea may be sticky, but it also seems as though this is an idea who's time has come, which makes it sticky. If my friend can say the same thing months ago from an incredibly remote location, then logic would state that the time has come.

    Beyond that, degrees of corporate responsibility is an issue in my mind. Perhaps it could be governed by the context and intent of the advertising situation? A decade or two ago, Coke didn't cause obesity, not because its properties were any different, but because of the context: people were poorer, worked harder physically, and didn't languish in front of computers, video games, and TV. Even in poor countries today, Coke is what it was for us "back then" -- a treat. My brother just got back from Nicaragua and said that an ice cold Coke down there was the best part of a day.

    I hardly drink Coke. I prefer beer. I don't drink much of that, either. Point is, no one forces me to do anything. While there is a degree of corporate responsibility, wouldn't it be better to focus public health efforts on creating lifestyle choices and content that positively reinforces changed behavior? Ie, not some kind of "You drink Coke, you rotten fatty," but rather a "Forget video games and go play ball, you'll be the better for it" type of campaign. Because like everything, even tobacco, moderation is key -- and low-cal is just nasty.

    --
    Andrew Turner, Branding And Marketing Specialist
    Mahout:Lateral Thinking Writ Large
    www.mahout.wordpress.com
    Skype: andrew72441

  • Andrew Turner

    It's remarkable that this came up.

    A friend of mine refuses to drink pop (we're Canadian) on the basis that "...in twenty years, it'll be the cigarettes of today." This is a guy who give his sentiments from the Canadian far north oil patch.

    An idea may be sticky, but it also seems as though this is an idea who's time has come, which makes it sticky. If my friend can say the same thing months ago from an incredibly remote location, then logic would state that the time has come.

    Beyond that, degrees of corporate responsibility is an issue in my mind. Perhaps it could be governed by the context and intent of the advertising situation? A decade or two ago, Coke didn't cause obesity, not because its properties were any different, but because of the context: people were poorer, worked harder physically, and didn't languish in front of computers, video games, and TV. Even in poor countries today, Coke is what it was for us "back then" -- a treat. My brother just got back from Nicaragua and said that an ice cold Coke down there was the best part of a day.

    I hardly drink Coke. I prefer beer. I don't drink much of that, either. Point is, no one forces me to do anything. While there is a degree of corporate responsibility, wouldn't it be better to focus public health efforts on creating lifestyle choices and content that positively reinforces changed behavior? Ie, not some kind of "You drink Coke, you rotten fatty," but rather a "Forget video games and go play ball, you'll be the better for it" type of campaign. Because like everything, even tobacco, moderation is key -- and low-cal is just nasty.

    --
    Andrew Turner, Branding And Marketing Specialist
    Mahout:Lateral Thinking Writ Large
    www.mahout.wordpress.com
    Skype: andrew72441

  • Andrew Turner

    It's remarkable that this came up.

    A friend of mine refuses to drink pop (we're Canadian) on the basis that "...in twenty years, it'll be the cigarettes of today." This is a guy who give his sentiments from the Canadian far north oil patch.

    An idea may be sticky, but it also seems as though this is an idea who's time has come, which makes it sticky. If my friend can say the same thing months ago from an incredibly remote location, then logic would state that the time has come.

    Beyond that, degrees of corporate responsibility is an issue in my mind. Perhaps it could be governed by the context and intent of the advertising situation? A decade or two ago, Coke didn't cause obesity, not because its properties were any different, but because of the context: people were poorer, worked harder physically, and didn't languish in front of computers, video games, and TV. Even in poor countries today, Coke is what it was for us "back then" -- a treat. My brother just got back from Nicaragua and said that an ice cold Coke down there was the best part of a day.

    I hardly drink Coke. I prefer beer. I don't drink much of that, either. Point is, no one forces me to do anything. While there is a degree of corporate responsibility, wouldn't it be better to focus public health efforts on creating lifestyle choices and content that positively reinforces changed behavior? Ie, not some kind of "You drink Coke, you rotten fatty," but rather a "Forget video games and go play ball, you'll be the better for it" type of campaign. Because like everything, even tobacco, moderation is key -- and low-cal is just nasty.

    --
    Andrew Turner, Branding And Marketing Specialist
    Mahout:Lateral Thinking Writ Large
    www.mahout.wordpress.com
    Skype: andrew72441

  • Andrew Turner

    It's remarkable that this came up.

    A friend of mine refuses to drink pop (we're Canadian) on the basis that "...in twenty years, it'll be the cigarettes of today." This is a guy who give his sentiments from the Canadian far north oil patch.

    An idea may be sticky, but it also seems as though this is an idea who's time has come, which makes it sticky. If my friend can say the same thing months ago from an incredibly remote location, then logic would state that the time has come.

    Beyond that, degrees of corporate responsibility is an issue in my mind. Perhaps it could be governed by the context and intent of the advertising situation? A decade or two ago, Coke didn't cause obesity, not because its properties were any different, but because of the context: people were poorer, worked harder physically, and didn't languish in front of computers, video games, and TV. Even in poor countries today, Coke is what it was for us "back then" -- a treat. My brother just got back from Nicaragua and said that an ice cold Coke down there was the best part of a day.

    I hardly drink Coke. I prefer beer. I don't drink much of that, either. Point is, no one forces me to do anything. While there is a degree of corporate responsibility, wouldn't it be better to focus public health efforts on creating lifestyle choices and content that positively reinforces changed behavior? Ie, not some kind of "You drink Coke, you rotten fatty," but rather a "Forget video games and go play ball, you'll be the better for it" type of campaign. Because like everything, even tobacco, moderation is key -- and low-cal is just nasty.

    --
    Andrew Turner, Branding And Marketing Specialist
    Mahout:Lateral Thinking Writ Large
    www.mahout.wordpress.com
    Skype: andrew72441

  • Andrew Turner

    It's remarkable that this came up.

    A friend of mine refuses to drink pop (we're Canadian) on the basis that "...in twenty years, it'll be the cigarettes of today." This is a guy who give his sentiments from the Canadian far north oil patch.

    An idea may be sticky, but it also seems as though this is an idea who's time has come, which makes it sticky. If my friend can say the same thing months ago from an incredibly remote location, then logic would state that the time has come.

    Beyond that, degrees of corporate responsibility is an issue in my mind. Perhaps it could be governed by the context and intent of the advertising situation? A decade or two ago, Coke didn't cause obesity, not because its properties were any different, but because of the context: people were poorer, worked harder physically, and didn't languish in front of computers, video games, and TV. Even in poor countries today, Coke is what it was for us "back then" -- a treat. My brother just got back from Nicaragua and said that an ice cold Coke down there was the best part of a day.

    I hardly drink Coke. I prefer beer. I don't drink much of that, either. Point is, no one forces me to do anything. While there is a degree of corporate responsibility, wouldn't it be better to focus public health efforts on creating lifestyle choices and content that positively reinforces changed behavior? Ie, not some kind of "You drink Coke, you rotten fatty," but rather a "Forget video games and go play ball, you'll be the better for it" type of campaign. Because like everything, even tobacco, moderation is key -- and low-cal is just nasty.

    --
    Andrew Turner, Branding And Marketing Specialist
    Mahout:Lateral Thinking Writ Large
    www.mahout.wordpress.com
    Skype: andrew72441

  • Ulrich Nettesheim

    The Heath's description of some of the soft drink industry leaders' responses to questions about accountability for producing healthier food reminds me of a time when I lived in L.A. for a few years and had several friends "in the biz", i.e. the movie business. One evening I got into a heated argument with a prominent producer who said it was none of her concern or responsibility to consider the psychological/social impact of the shows she produces on viewers. Her sole responsibility, she stated emphatically, was to produce shows that people enjoyed watching, period. Reluctant food companies will have it tougher than movie studios because the line of sight between calories provided, consumed and stored as fat is much clearer than say the impact "Jaws" had on my chronic low grade shark-phobia. But I have to believe that particularly the "fun for you" food brands will have an increasingly difficult choice to make as, like the Brothers Heath suggest, late movers won't be afforded the same good will that early movers will. The earlier food brands make the move to healthier food choices in a genuine way, awkward as it may seem to some of them and their customers today, the better off they (and we) will likely be. Of course there is always the strategy depicted in Woody Allen's Sleeper - wait long enough and cigarettes and bacon will be considered good for you once more.

  • Eduardo Suazo

    My question is: Why letting out of the ad the diet sodas? To me it reduces its credibility and hits beverage companies for free, telling the people to drink light instead of regular would open a door for the companies to say “I totally agree”. Instead, they open a door for the consumer to say “I won’t drink skim milk, water or seltzer… I’ll pass for now”. Totally agree that sugary sodas are THE main issue that needs to be addressed, but fat people is probably already drinking sugarless and not loosing weight anyways, and normal people drinking sugary sodas have been doing that for years and either already became fat (so they are in the former group) or not becoming fat at all, so the ad looses meaning.

    I guess that the focus should be on children and their fathers, since the same can of soda can provide enough sugar to surpass the dietary needs of a child and turn him into a sugar slave forever. I would use something like a picture of a father giving his child a whole pizza and comparing it to giving him a sugary soda, telling "buy sugarless" on the legend. Probably adding at the end some small message telling something like "it's not good for you either... stop buying sugary soda"

    Anyways, I totally agree that sodas will be the next cigarettes. Hope that people reacts before law forces companies to do something.

  • Jr Forasteros

    Oh man... Dr. Pepper is TOTALLY part of a balanced meal. At least for me :)

    @April - I'm not sure that their characterization of the board meetings at strip clubs is so unfair as you paint it. I agree that it's distasteful, but it happens quite a lot. Carly Forina shares such a story in her autobiography. It sounds like something out of "Mad Men", but it's unfortunately close to the truth.

    That said, I found this article helpful and informative... jump-started some great thinking for me! Thanks guys!

  • April Bradley

    "Then you discover that every weekend, your sales reps are spending thousands of dollars ...at the local strip parlor..." So am I to assume these sales reps are all men or am I unaware that mass amounts of women frequent strip clubs? You couldn't think of a less sexist analogy? I'm not mad, just dissapointed that a magazine known for innovation would be so willing to "take one step back" and by people that would use the line, "Dude, want some coffee with your sugar?" Seriously it took 2 people to come up with that tired joke? If the article is not relevant, witty or informative, I will not be upset if you omit it and try again next month.