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Thums Up: Taste the Hypocrisy, the Marketing and the Catch

How much does an advert really matter? In the case of athletes marketing sugar sodas to impressionable youngsters, a huge deal. In this ever changing world where sport has been forced to take up larger causes ‘off the pitch’, it is time for athletes, especially in India, to stand up against advertising and its propaganda-laced hypocrisy.
Bajrang Punia in Thums Up Tokyo Olympics ad

Wrestler Bajrang Punia in the Thums Up Tokyo Olympics ad video (screengrab).

The woke athlete has always been a thing. But India as usual has lagged behind. 

Indian sport, after all, is one big opaque bubble oblivious to the outside world, conveniently shutting its eyes to the goings on within as well. It is the ideal bubble, justifications ready for shortcomings provided by a semi-professional (amateur on many counts) state-controlled ecosystem. They also indulge in the trappings of the professional world, without much accountability to boot. A perfect example of this arrived last week — some of our Olympics-bound athletes gulping down bottles of Thums Up in a promotion aired by the soft drinks brand, a subsidiary of the Coca Cola Company, across various digital platforms.

Coca Cola has been a long-time sponsor of the Olympic movement. They are the beverage partners of the Tokyo Games and the multinational firm decided to push its Indian sub brand, Thums Up, into the portfolio for the Olympics. Big landmark moment for India Inc, no doubt. And India Inc is where it should remain because the decision of the cola giants has nothing to do with sport. It just happens to be a solid business move, considering the size of the Indian market which holds a large percentage of Coca Cola’s cherished targets — young adults and the kids. And these potential customers love sports. A win-win for everyone, except the people who actually end up buying and drinking this sugar-laced health hazard.  

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Thums Up, in earnest, roped in wrestler Bajrang Punia, boxer Vikas Krishan Yadav, archers Deepika Kumari and Atanu Das and members of the Indian shooting team including Manu Bhaker, to launch their campaign, positioning itself as a brand attempting to bring out the struggle of the Indian athlete to the masses, and celebrating them. An advertising masterstroke indeed: A noble cause intricately woven into a pure and cold (as cold as the chilled can itself) business strategy.

Everyone would be excused if, after watching the ad, they started wondering whether our Olympics-bound athletes indeed gulp down bottles of Thums Up after training to regain their ‘thunder’. They don’t, and personally, I know for sure that Bajrang hardly sips soda. He sticks to milk, supplements and electrolyte drinks, to take care of his rehydration and energy needs. I am sure, going by how sport science is, even in India, almost all Tokyo bound athletes stay away from concoctions like Thums Up. Which makes you wonder how they ended up in this hypocrisy. 

There is a much more pertinent question than that though. For it’s a personal choice, and the athlete’s headache, if he or she chooses to be a hypocrite. The point to be spoken about is why they did it despite having an understanding of the health implications of the product they are pushing inadvertently to quite a lot of impressionable minds. That too when, across the world, a movement is gathering steam and athletes have begun questioning and shunning brands they believe are possible hazards to human health and well being. 

As recently as a couple of weeks, Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, made his stance on Coca Cola, or any soda brand for that matter, removing bottles of Coke from his press conference desk, and saying have water instead. At the same tournament, the Euro, Paul Pogba removed a bottle of Heineken kept on the press conference table. The presence of an alcohol brand created an ethical dilemma for him since he is a practising Muslim. And, Pogba possibly advertently, did it understanding the health and social implications of trivialising beer as part of a larger footballing spectatorship culture — one that India has fallen for too.

The world is moving in another direction, and the Thums Up ad indicates India is not. This was clearly evident throughout last year as well when our biggest sports stars — and we are talking about cricketers and not the lesser mortals who need Thums Up’s self proclaimed benevolence to push their stories to the fans — chose to remain silent about the wrong and ills that played out in the country post the hastily imposed Covid-19 lockdown. Some had, in fact, spoken about the Black Lives Matter movement in the west, but again never about the casual regionalism and racism thrown about in Indian sport. 

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Hypocrisy, it seems, is part and parcel of the system here in various avatars. Thums Up and Coca Cola seem to have realised that, and capitalised at pretty much the right moment. Their PR had taken a hit with the Ronaldo incident. The Indian Olympics foray seems to be a significant part of their global recovery plan. Well played!

We can’t say the same for our athletes though. No, they need not be blatant like the Portuguese football star. We all know that Indian athletes — non cricketers — aren’t multi millionaires. Endorsement deals are too few and far between. When something comes their way, they are inclined to take it. Then again, with the kind of support from both state and private funds, and the rewards windfall when they win abroad, the athletes — especially those in the Thums Up ad — could have respectfully declined.

Bajrang or Bhaker or Vikas did not have to look too far to inspire themselves to take a stance when approached by the cola giants. Virat Kohli had refused a deal, famously. Then again, Kohli is cricket’s Ronaldo and it is unfair to compare him with our Olympians. Pullela Gopichand would be a better candidate. Gopi justified his refusal by explaining how he had cut all forms of sugar in 1997 after learning how bad it is for not just performance on the badminton court but also for general well being and good health.  

Having said that, Gopichand could not inspire his most famous ward, PV Sindhu, to say no to Gatorade, a sub brand of PepsiCo, and a sugary “sports drink”. Sindhu has a long association with Gatorade and has done many campaigns with the brand. But the most damning one was from last year where she was seen promoting exercising at home during lockdown. Of course Sindhu was not drinking Gatorade in the video, but the clip ended with the brand logo and a slogan. 

Talking about the drink, the sugar levels in Gatorade is less than that of a cola, but it is significant enough to mess up the system in the long run unless the person taking it is readily using the excess calories. As per some reports, a 20-ounce (almost 600ml) serving of Gatorade's Thirst Quencher contains 36 grams of sugar. That’s less than the sugar in a 600ml Thums Up bottle, which is around 60 grams. 

In all possibility, Sindhu knows these numbers. After all, athletes these days are aware of calorie intakes and the chemical composition of the food and beverages they pump into their systems. Sindhu is no small athlete either. She has multiple endorsements and could afford to say no to a brand if she chose to. The whole country and the badminton world would have taken note, applauded even. 

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Instead, she was indirectly encouraging fans to identify exercising with Gatorade while cooped up in their homes with less avenues for being active through the day or moving about (read: burn calories).  That drink is a lesser evil, for sure, but that does not absolve Sindhu. Now the question is what will it take to absolve the wrestler, the shooters, the archers and the boxer. A medal?

A medal would play into the #palatde game Thums Up has begun. The returning Olympic heroes  — icons of the youth who are readily identifiable as well considering their social statuses — would be seen sipping and emptying more bottles and cans in campaigns, becoming synonymous with a drink that will slowly eat into the health index, much like any form of addiction. Sugar is an addiction and that fact should be put on the labels of all the aerated soft drink and energy drink brands much like how tobacco products come with a warning. 

Talking about labels, the subverted push of these brands is so glaring that it is very difficult to escape. For instance, water, which Ronaldo insisted we all should be drinking instead of soda, will invariably be a brand belonging to one of the big players. Water at the Olympic Games press conference table would be Coca Cola. This game is being played on every possible stage...

Also Read | The Indian Athlete and the Trappings of an Olympic Qualification

Ours is a woke world now. No matter which side of the table you are sitting, you are still ‘woke’ because there has been no time in history where our perception of matters has been more driven by our perspective and logic — be it flawed or not, right or wrong — than now. Just that our perspective need not necessarily be ours. It is invariably an aggregate of the information overload we are subjected to on a daily basis, the propaganda, advertising and the rhetoric. 

That’s where this small soft drink ad becomes significant. Because it has the power to sway perceptions, and in this case, the tilt would prove costly for it is a matter of health. And we all know, having endured the ills of a less than perfect body in this pandemic directly or indirectly, the personal and societal cost that would entail.

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