The offending print and billboard ad reads: "Enhanced hydration for the nation. Delicious and nutritious." The UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), an authoritative, industry-funded group, stated that people would not expect a "nutritious" drink to have the equivalent of up to five teaspoons of added sugar.
The last time the ASA went after Vitaminwater it was for ads claiming that its sugary beverages were better than vegetables -- "more muscles than brussels." (See below) Here in the US, last July a federal judge ruled that a false advertising class action lawsuit against Vitaminwater could proceed. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is responsible for the suit, Vitaminwater has championed the drink's ability to aid in chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints and support optimal immune function.
By continuing to do this type of marketing, Coke has apparently made the cynical calculation that it can get away with claiming Vitaminwater is healthy. Its case rests on the shaky notion that healthy = dumping entire bottles of cheap, synthetic vitamins into its drinks: The company responded to the ASA by saying that its products can be described as "nutritious" because they contain "nutritionally meaningful quantities of several nutrients, including 25% of the recommended daily allowance of four B vitamins, along with 100% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C."
By this standard, Froot Loops and Apple Jacks, which have no shortage of added vitamins, are also health foods.
Coke has chosen to endure multiple public slaps on the wrist because its marketing has succeeded in insulating Vitaminwater from the negative health aura that's engulfed soda and other forms of sugar water. The beverage industry's much-touted school beverage guidelines, for instance, allow for sales of Vitaminwater and other "enhanced waters" in high schools because they have less sugar than soda. By comparison, a 20 ounce bottle of Coke contains 65 grams of sugar, or 15 teaspoons.
For Coke's plan to keep on working though, customers have to continue believing that added vitamins do something for you besides turn your pee neon yellow. The reality is that so many modern processed foods and drinks are fortified with vitamins and minerals that Americans simply aren't lacking in these things. In the scientific literature, the vitamin myth is already starting to fall apart.
But the biggest irony of Vitaminwater's UK "nutritious" ad is likely to be the way it completely erodes the defense Coke presented in the US class action lawsuit. Seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, attorneys argued that "no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage."
Unless, of course, they happen to see the company's own ad.