Edition number 74; dateline 10 June 2014

Between a Coke and hard place
It is an article of faith within the Leisure Review office that principles are very expensive things and that you never quite know their real value until someone tries to buy them. While it is not a problem the Leisure Review has to wrestle with very often, we always think that it is as well to have given some thought to these issues just in case the phone rings and someone offers you a large amount of money. No matter how slender the strings attached, the knots can prove tricky if you are not prepared.

The relationship between UKActive and Coca-Cola is perhaps a case in point. The basic elements of the story, reported on the TLR news page and, we presume, elsewhere in the leisure press, are fairly simple: Coke is prepared to spend £20 million of its marketing budget on activities in parks to promote a new product to young people and UKActive has been contracted to help them do it. However, it does seem that the question of what price a set of principles might have caught UKActive HQ by surprise.

How else to explain the length to which the organisation has gone to explain their decision? A statement on the organisation’s website offers an emotional account of the difficulties encountered as they wrestled with the ethical conundrum, with the implication that the outcome was always in the balance. Correspondence sent to some within the leisure sector who have expressed their dismay that a body so determined to link itself with health promotion, as UKActive has been, has chosen to assist the promotion of a brand widely associated with the prevalence of obesity and health inequalities, as Coca-Cola, has been goes to great lengths to explain why, agonised over all the pros and cons, they decided to take the money anyway.

And taking the money is fine as long as you are clear about why you are doing it; and if you are clear about why you are doing it, the explanation should be simple. ‘Business is business and we’ve all got to eat’ is a perfectly acceptable response. Similarly, ‘We are not in a position to refuse any legitimate offer of revenue that could be used to provide public services’ is understandable, justifiable and appropriately succinct.

Taking the money only becomes a problem if you have put yourself in a position to be held to higher standards and this may be where UKActive has run into difficulties. Having gone to considerable lengths to promote itself as a not-for-profit membership organisation that makes an important contribution to the health of the nation through its promotion of physical activity, relationships with some of the really big brands and their products are always likely to be problematic. How to square the circle of your claims to be a quasi-health provider on one hand and getting access to some serious marketing spending on the other is quite a problem, particularly when your partners in the health sector are notoriously prickly about the whole ethics thing.

There is, of course, no shortage of advice on how to cope with difficult decisions but one we have found particularly useful at the Leisure Review is to discuss it with a four-year-old. We are lucky enough to have one on the staff but if you don’t have one handy, you can apply the appropriate logic with a little imaginative role play. The scenario might run along the following lines:

[You] Coke wants to give us money to encourage people to go to the park.

[Four-year-old] Why?

[You] Because they have a new drink they want to promote.

[4YO] Why?

[You] Because their old one is very popular with a lot of people and not very popular with some other people.

[4YO] Why?

[You] Because it’s got lots of sugar and caffeine in it.

[4YO] Why?

[You] Because it makes people want to carry on drinking it even though they know it’s not good for them.

[4YO] Why?

[You] Because it makes a shit-load of money for the people who make it and that is why they are in business: to make money.


[We should point out that this is not an entirely accurate scenario because by the fifth ‘why’ either the adult has usually been reduced to answers involving molecular physics or the four-year-old has got bored and wandered off, which is why it would not be inappropriate to be swearing in the final answer: you would be on your own.]

If at any point in this Q&A session you feel the appropriate answer might be “For no other reason than they are genuinely interested in promoting physical activity and contributing to the health of the nation”, then take the money. If not, perhaps you should walk away. And if you feel that you need the help of a global brand’s marketing department to justify the decision you have taken, we suggest you run it by the four-year-old one more time.

You’ll find them in the park.


Jonathan Ives



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