Please note: This post has been co-authored with Kate Tyrol
“Believe in better.” Better nutrition. Better health. Better taste. Better farming practices. Better land use. Better cow care. Better milk. Coca-Cola’s new dairy product, Fairlife, brings with it these great promises, hoping to fill a perceived void in a market of consumers increasingly interested in healthy food, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability. But, is this claim of “better” the most appropriate metric for judging this novel product, or does it unintentionally continue to drive the problematic notion that companies and their technologies are increasingly defining our identity for us?
Coca-Cola’s broad claims to “better,” as they pertain to Fairlife and consumer health, seem suspect when critically evaluated. While it may prove “better” to some consumers, its framing and presentation in the marketplace depend on and reinforce the marginalization of women and the poor.
Context: The Fairlife Story
Inspired from work replacing standard water filters on their Indiana dairy farm, Fair Oaks Dairy, former veterinarians Mike and Sue McClosky began to wonder what would happen if the same, simple technological processes of filtration were applied to fluid milk. In a recent phone interview, Sue McClosky said:
I said to Mike, if we could filter and boost out the good things in milk, and filter out some of the things we don’t need more of, we could really make milk even better. I told him, ‘Could you imagine if I as a woman could get all of my calcium and essential proteins throughout the day from a glass of milk — Wow, that would really be something.
As the McCloskys’ story goes, this venture literally began at their kitchen table, with a few food grade filters, milk from their farm, and some creative experimentation. Their work resulted in a so-called cold filtration system, which enables one to separate milk components of lactose, other sugars, protein, and calcium. The milk is then reconstituted, resulting in Fairlife’s “better” product, containing 50% more protein, 30% more calcium, and 50% less sugar than standard milk.
Fairlife is partnering with Minute Maid, a Coca-Cola company, to distribute and market Fairlife. This premium product is currently rolling out nationally, with a marketing campaign to begin in the early spring. Marketing efforts will surround the notion of “better,” with emphasis on purity, taste, and nutrition, showcasing the Fairlife farms and families that own them.
Historically, United States nutrition policy has put great emphasis on milk as a go-to, nutrient dense, affordable product for people of all ages. It has been the focus of massive marketing dollars, including campaigns such as Got Milk?, Three A Day, Milk Life, and #MilkTruth. Access to milk is a central focus of school lunch programs. More recently, however, fluid milk sales in the United States have plummeted. This can be attributed to many factors, including the booming value-added yogurt and cheese industries, changing consumer preferences, inconsistent milk price markets, and debatable scientific consensus surrounding dairy’s nutritional benefits (most notably over milk fat, protein, and calcium in the human diet).
Simultaneously, it appears that Coca-Cola Company is seeking out a new demographic of consumers: the middle-aged, wealthy, health-conscious non-soda drinkers. A milk product that touts itself as nutritionally superior and “better” than standard milk products is an avenue through which to reach this group. Initially, this product is being marketed as a premium product: It has a price tag of roughly $4.00 for less than half a gallon — approximately two-to-three times the cost of traditional, unfiltered milk. Given the financial inaccessibility of traditional milk for many, the high cost creates even more further challenges of accessibility for the demographics of people who may most benefit from the modifications in nutrition in the first place. A truly better product for many would be simply making milk a financially viable alternative to other beverages.
Scientists do not all agree on the “better” nutritional benefits of such a premium product, however. For example, Cornell University nutritionist David Levitsky argues that the benefits of increased protein in milk are a “marketing ploy” — that “reducing the sugar without reducing calories [from protein] is a waste of time.” Perhaps the science on milk even prior to this technological innovation is not clear.
These points raise the question: “Better” nutrition, but for whom?
Better (Picture of) Health
The Role of “Woman” and “Mother”
Fairlife first attracted criticism not for any unique feature of the product, but for its advertising concept, which featured sexualized, infantilized women in the style of “pin-up girls” — presumably with Fairlife to thank for their incredible sexiness.
While there is much to say (and much has been said) about the injustice of yet again portraying women as sex objects, it is particularly remarkable that a product defined by its health benefits would be marketed based purely on the effects it can have on one’s appearance — and not just anyone’s appearance, but young, already slim, almost exclusively pale-skinned, disproportionately large-breasted women’s appearances. In its first public visibility, Fairlife has already morphed from a healthy beverage to a “fix” for unsexy bodies.
Coca-Cola has since moved away from this tactic in response to the backlash. Their marketing now is focusing heavily on the role of the “family” farm that developed this product. In reiterating their story of the possibilities a filtration process opens up for altering the nutritional content of milk, the McCloskys relate a consistent message in which the wife has a breakthrough when she thinks, “If you could make a milk for me, as a woman…”
Most people, regardless of gender, will benefit from more protein and calcium and less sugar, yet these are described here as womanly needs. Fairlife seems to have migrated from a sexy, splashy brand to a downhome, earthy one while maintaining the appeal that it is a woman’s need to be slim.
Of course, an alternate interpretation of the unique womanly needs the product supposedly addresses is that these might be a mother’s need for vitality that will let her perform the physical labor of parenting, need for nutrition for her children, and need for the tools to teach her children appropriate nutrition, health behaviors, and ideologies about class. (Super-milk effectively sets you apart from regular-milk drinkers via performance of health behavior as well as conspicuous consumption.) Even given such a seemingly gentler interpretation of this talking point, the same effect is produced: “woman’s” role is very narrowly defined because this narrow product is so able to help her fulfill it.
Fairlife’s original ads communicate the message that women are primarily bodies and, specifically, sexual ones. The revised campaign tells us that women have a need to be thin and that mothers have a need to perform health behaviors according to rigid standards. Ultimately, the message remains the same: a woman has a proper role (and this milk will help her perform it).
Heath As Performance
In an era that increasingly values the neoliberal “cultural trope of individual responsibility”, and particularly in the U.S. where healthcare is (very slowly) evolving into a shared cost (through systems like health insurance, medicaid, medicare, employer-sponsored wellness programs, and tax-based incentives or penalties), our health is perceived as a public issue and a personal responsibility. Health becomes a moral responsibility of each citizen.
Many health indicators aren’t publicly visible – things like blood pressure, levels of substances in the blood (e.g. sugar, hormones, or cholesterol), and the absence or presence of cancerous tumors. This means overt measures must be taken to make our health visible, and so the performance of health behaviors becomes part of responsible, morally virtuous citizenship. These behaviors include maintaining a particular body weight, maintaining an “attractive” appearance along other dimensions like teeth, skin, hair, and even body odor, exercising, engaging in health talk (like comparing body weight or diet with the implied intent of positioning oneself within one’s social group), and eating “right”. Diet is also invisible; a “healthy” diet, however you define it, is about a collection of eating practices and not just the relatively limited number of specific instances of public eating that an individual engages in.
This is where products like Fairlife excel. Not only does it allow you to publicly consume a “healthy” beverage, it is dramatically and uniquely labeled to draw attention to its extreme “health” value.
With Coca-Cola cashing in on culturally encouraged, moralistically defined anxieties relating to appearing as visibly healthy, ultimately, Fairlife’s healthiness—or lack thereof—is meaningless. What matters is how visibly “healthy” it is.
Fairlife enters a market where milk is already unavailable to many. Fairlife is aimed not at the poor who may already lack for calcium or protein in their beverages but at the already-milk-purchasing wealthy who (the manufacturer hopes) want a higher status version of the beverage. Fairlife can also be used to allude to one’s moral status of “healthy”.
As a result, Fairlife may provide a nutritional benefit to a narrow segment of the population, but the inability for many in that segment to routinely access Fairlife and the incredible social harm of re-enforcing narrow definitions of womanhood and healthy leave us skeptical how such a product could possibly claim to be universally better.