Ads for Coca-Cola's Vitaminwater brand that suggest it can replace flu shots or prevent illness are "dangerously misleading," a consumer watchdog group said in a formal complaint with federal regulators.
The Washington-based National Consumers League, which has made headlines for protesting against health claims made by Cheerios and Frosted Mini-Wheats, said stopping Vitaminwater's claims about warding off the flu and boosting the immune system should be a top priority for the Federal Trade Commission.
"One of the reasons we went after them was the claims were so outlandish, downright reckless," said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the consumer group. "We just felt like someone needed to step up."
Coca-Cola said the advertisements are meant to be funny.
One label on a Vitaminwater bottle said "vitamins + water = all you need." A display said "flu shots are so last year" and promised more immunity and "less snotty tissues."
Consumers "can clearly see from the labels, which are FDA compliant, what's in every bottle," Coca-Cola said in a statement. "Vitaminwater has always had a fun, humorous and engaging personality -- and our ads reflect that."
Much of the marketing from Glaceau, the Vitaminwater parent company that Coca-Cola bought in 2007, is tongue-in-cheek, said John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest. Most consumers are intelligent enough to know that ads claiming flu shots are unnecessary shouldn't be taken literally, he said.
Still, the National Consumers League wants Coca-Cola to pay for a round of corrective advertising to encourage people to take their flu shots. Greenberg said the company's argument that the ads are supposed to be taken with a wink is "totally unacceptable."
"For a company to make advertising claims and then say don't believe it ... that's a complete cop-out and completely unacceptable," she said.
Vitaminwater was also dinged recently in the United Kingdom when a self-regulating advertising group said an ad incorrectly implied that all the added ingredients in Vitaminwater are beneficial.
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