Putman embraced the challenge with gusto. In the interview, he recalled giving a presentation in which he showed a chart illustrating how consumption of milk had dropped over time while consumption of a sugary soda — he can no longer remember which product — had risen.
When he pointed to the place where the two lines crossed — the moment in which soda surpassed milk — Putman remembers swelling with pride.
“I did not have any reaction beyond, ‘We are winning,’ ” he said. “It’s shocking to me now. But it was not shocking to me then in any way, shape or form. . . . We were really uninformed relative to the health issues.”
Contacted for a response to Putman’s comments, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, Ben Sheidler, said share of stomach is no longer “part of our company’s strategy.”
“Todd Putman left Coca-Cola over 12 years ago after working here for only three years,” Sheidler said. “Since Putman left, our business has changed dramatically.”
As an example, he said that 41 percent of the total volume of Coca-Cola trademark products sold in North America is now low- or no-calorie — up from 1 percent in 1982 and 32 percent in 1999.
The company has also voluntarily removed full-calorie carbonated drinks from schools, and voluntarily lists calorie information on its packages, Sheidler said.
“Coca-Cola is committed to working with everyone . . .to develop solutions to obesity,” he said. “We offer a wide variety of beverages and provide information to help people make decisions that are right for their lives.”
Putman, whose positions at Coca-Cola included U.S. head of marketing for carbonated drinks, said in the interview that among his achievements was tailoring the company’s national advertising campaigns to specific groups. The approach helped Coca-Cola intensify marketing to target audiences such as African Americans and Hispanics.
“It was just a fact that Hispanics and African Americans have higher per capita consumption of sugar-based soft drinks than white Americans,” he said. “We knew that if we got more products into those environments those segments would drink more.”
Today that work is one of Putman’s greatest regrets. Statistics consistently show that the incidence of obesity is highest among minorities. The higher price and relative scarcity of many healthier alternatives to soda in low-income communities — as well as the lack of marketing to promote those that are available — effectively mean that low income minorities have fewer choices, Putman said.
“The game is rigged by the power of the soft drink industry and how much money they put against all the competition in that space.”
Sheidler said that “in an effort to be respectful and culturally relevant, imagery is sometimes tailored to the people and communities we serve.” But he said that Coca-Cola’s marketing is aimed at all consumers.