Coca-Cola Christmas truck tour scaled back in the UK after backlash from campaigners

Key Points
  • Coca-Cola’s annual Christmas truck tour has been made shorter this year as health campaigners pressure the company.
  • The company has said it will not alter its Christmas truck campaign.
  • Calls for a ban or change to the campaign have stretched to Europe, where the truck also tours towns and cities. 
Shoppers pass the Christmas lights and Coca-Cola truck in Liverpool city centre.
Peter Byrne | PA Images | Getty Images

Coca-Cola has scaled back its Christmas truck's annual tour of the U.K. following protests from health activists.

The truck will visit 24 towns and cities around the U.K. throughout November and December — down from 42 locations last year.

Coca-Cola's annual marketing push has faced various demands from campaigners, ranging from a stop to the distribution of full-sugar free samples to calls for an outright ban of the tour.

The truck is usually hosted by local authorities and supermarkets as it moves around the U.K., but politicians in some areas have called for the truck to be banned from their towns and cities.

Last year, the drinks giant faced pressure from lawmakers in the English cities of Liverpool and Carlisle, who argued the visit should not go ahead as it contributed to health problems. This year, the tour will not visit those locations.

On Wednesday, campaign group Sugar Smart announced that activists from more than 83 organizations had signed a letter calling for Coca-Cola to stop handing out free sugary drinks. The group argued that by doing so, Coca-Cola was encouraging unhealthy consumption of sugary drinks, which they said contributed to the country's childhood obesity crisis and wider health issues.

Campaigners are also pressuring supermarkets Asda and Tesco to stop hosting the truck, with Sugar Smart calling on the British public to sign a petition to the retailers.

Spokespersons for Tesco and Asda were not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

In a press release Wednesday, Sugar Smart U.K. campaign coordinator Vera Zakharov slammed the Coca-Cola truck campaign as "sinister."

"It is welcome news that local authorities are turning their backs on sugary drinks promotions," she said.

"Hosting the Christmas truck tour is incompatible with their drive to reduce diet-related disease. Bizarrely, Coca-Cola equates handing out their sugary products with the start of the cherished holiday season, which has nothing to do with fizzy drinks. But this strategy takes on a sinister tone when you consider that the Coke Truck visits areas with some of the worst health problems in the country."

Coca-Cola response

In an open letter to the campaigners, Coca-Cola said it would not change its strategy.

"You asked me specifically about the Coca-Cola Truck Tour and to not make regular Coca-Cola available on it," said Jon Woods, the general manager of Coca-Cola Great Britain and Ireland.

"I do not plan to do this. This annual event is something that our consumers love and enjoy, and I feel we run it in a responsible way."

He noted that the company expected 90 percent of the drinks sampled on the 2018 tour to be zero-sugar varieties — the highest level since the campaign began eight years ago.

"I believe the actions we have taken as a business to remove sugar from our drinks and focus our marketing on the no-sugar variants of Coca-Cola show we are committed to acting responsibly and playing our part in addressing some of the challenges you raise," he said.

"For a few weeks per year, thousands of consumers love and enjoy our Christmas truck tour and as long as consumers want it we will continue to run it."

European support

The Coca-Cola truck tour also takes place throughout Europe, with 10 tour dates in Germany throughout November and December this year.

Luise Molling, campaigner on obesity prevention at Foodwatch Germany — an arm of a European public health organization, told CNBC via email that the group wanted to see similar action in Germany.

"Foodwatch definitely agrees with U.K. campaigners that the Coca-Cola Christmas tour should be stopped," she said. "There shouldn`t be any child-directed marketing for unhealthy products like Coke."