Coca-Cola logoPhoto by Photon-Painter.

I was watching a presentation by Robert Lustig about the damage caused by sugary foods, and after listening for a while it raised a few ethical questions I’m curious to know your thoughts on.

Have a quick read of this excerpt.

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My colleague Dan Hale at the University of Texas, San Antonio, tells me that down there they’ve got a “Texas-sized Big Gulp” — 60 ounces of Coca-Cola, a Snickers bar, and a bag of Doritos, all for $0.99. If you did that every day that’d be 112 pounds of fat per year.

What’s in Coke? Caffeine. What’s caffeine? A mild stimulant, right? It’s also a diuretic — it makes you pee.

What else is in Coke? Salt — 55mg of sodium per can. It’s like drinking a pizza.

So what happens if you take-on sodium and lose water? You get thirstier. Why is there so much sugar in Coke? To hide the salt.

When was the last time you went to a Chinese restaurant and had sweet-n-sour pork? That’s half soy sauce — you wouldn’t eat that. Except the sugar plays a trick on your tongue. You can’t even tell it’s there.

Everybody remember New Coke? 1985? More salt. More caffeine.

That’s the smoking gun. They know what they’re doing.

That’s The Coca-Cola Conspiracy.

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Coca-Cola conspiracyPounds of fat amassed per year by drinking one Coke per day.

Presentation embedded below. The transcript above begins at 12:35.

It’s worth noting that some of the nutritional claims in Robert Lustig’s 90-minute presentation have been disputed, but this is just one quick example relating to the ethical questions I was thinking about.

Don’t shoot the messenger, on
How ethical are your design practices? on
Coca-Cola: generous benefactor or evil brand master? on

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April 26, 2011


Drinking coke in excess is obviously not great for your health, but I think that’s up to the consumer, not the designer.

The same could be said for the enjoying the occasional drink vs. being an alcohol.

Eating the occasional McDonald’s burger vs. living on fast food.

Taking pleasure from driving a sports car vs. driving recklessly and hurting someone.

I agree with you regarding not working for a tobacco company. For me that’s a no-brainer because it only does harm. No other products come to mind for me though…

Your logic is totally flawed.
If we use the same “logic” as you, corporations could sell drinks or food with a tiny dose of mercury, arsenic or radioactive waste, and you could say “it’s not the corporation who is bad, it is the consumer who drinks/eats it”. Do you understand now or is it to complicated for you?

When I worked as a graphic designer, I once deliberately over-priced a job to design and produce a brochure for a company that made battery chicken cages.

The work was passed on to me by a government agency, and was therefore considered prestigious. I couldn’t have touched it with a barge-pole. Giving them an astronomical price seemed the only way out of the situation.

Perlman, Averill obviously charged an astronomically high price so the company producing battery chicken cages would turn down her offer. She was trying to get out of the situation. If the company accepted her ridiculously high price, then I am sure she would not do the job for them. She did not even mention the company accepting her offer. Do not attack and insult people before you know both sides of the story.

I think that being part of capitalism, you have to face that most (if not all) large corporations (and many small ones) act unethically. Coca Cola is one example. You focus on the health aspects, but what about the other aspects? That page highlights some murders of union workers in Colombia in the last ten years related to Coca Cola.

Obvious issues currently include chocolate and safety at nuclear power plants (Tepco, starting from 2002). Oh, and of course sweatshops (e.g. classic US case). Oh, and various issues related to media corporations, include Sony BMG. I could go on, but the list would get too long.

The problems associated with corporations are so well known that that is a huge body of work related to corporations as sociopaths.

What to do? I’m not really sure what individuals, as individuals, can do about corporate problems. Can we boycott capitalism?

I had a friend check the ingredients on her Coke bottle (we don’t drink the stuff).

There was no salt in it.


I’ve been a huge fan of yours for years now — and that includes directing potential clients on at least half a dozen occasions, as I think you’re the best in the business — but this is a bit ridiculous.

At the heart of the rebuttal to this flawed argument should be obvious: accept the consequences of your actions. Enjoy soft drinks, or anything else potentially hazardous, in moderation if possible; if not, you’d better be comfortable paying the piper.

It’s up to you. If you don’t want to gain 100 pounds, don’t drink a gallon of soda and eat a bag of Doritos and a Snickers bar every day of your life. If you do want that daily regimen, don’t blame the company for the waist size or Type II Diabetes.

If you want to pass on designing a Coke-like logo, that — like my decision whether to eat Snickers — is your prerogative as an independent professional. But do I give a whit that you or any other designer thinks they’re doing me a favor by not providing well-compensated services to a company that offers a potentially-harmful product? No.

You might reject an approach from a tobacco company, but put simply, I’m not interested in what designers think I ought to do — or not do — with my life.

If we use the same “logic” as you, corporations could sell drinks or food with a tiny dose of mercury, arsenic or radioactive waste, and you could say “it’s not the corporation who is bad, it is the consumer who drinks/eats it”. Do you understand now or is it to complicated for you? And you thought you’re post was smart. Next time, think for yourself instead of repeating the lies you heard before.

The logic doesnt follow. Nothing in coke is an illegal substance to have in foods. In fact this article is absolutely ridiculous. e.g. “its like drinking a pizza” because it has 45 mg of sodium… a medium pizza has around 600 mg. And an adult can have 2300 mg of sodium on average.

Sugar is simple carbs, nothing more. Salt is a normal dietary ingredient. Caffeine is harmless.
All these are okay in moderation. If you’re overweight, there’s nobody to blame but yourself.

One of the reasons I became self-employed is so I could be consistent with my ethics and morals as opposed to working on whatever my boss tasked me with.

At the same time we’re in this for the money after all. We all take jobs so we can eat and our clients have a legitimate right to market and push their product.
Going all righteous on a client (Coca-Cola, GoDaddy) for some reason (health issues, love of animals) while ignoring all other implications is a bit hypocritical in my opinion.
If parents cared about their children they would warn them about the dangers of a messy diet. No need to boycott McDonald’s or Pepsi. Too much milk is bad too. Moderation is the key.
Killing an elephant is pretty bad, especially if done for fun and by a douche but how many animals suffer so we can have meat every day? How much grain is fed to cows instead of people who starve? Hiw much injustice must poor countries endure so we can steal their energy sources to drive to the mall?

One has to draw a line, though. I regularly turn down jobs related to religion and politics because to me those two are the scum of our society.

Your last sentence makes you lose all credibility. You’re assaulting people who you don’t even know because you have been brainwashed. Do you really think you’re not “mainstream”? Really? People who reject past traditions like you are the modern “MAINSTREAM”. You have been “molded” by movies, ads, tv and so on.

Hi folks. Andrew, the moderation point holds true with me to an extent. We’ve probably all heard claims that a glass of red wine can be beneficial for the heart (although was that concocted by wine producers offering backhanders to those in the medical profession? — skeptic in me).

Update: 27 April
On red wine being a good source of antioxidants.

Averill, interesting situation. If we win the contract with inflated rates, could we counteract the misalignment by using a percentage of the income for ethical purposes? Saying and doing are very different, though, and working against our better judgement also comes into play — imagine if we design for a product we don’t agree with. Do we then produce a lower quality of work, perhaps sub-consciously? And if we do, are we harming our future business by accepting these larger-than-normal payments and diminishing the standard of our portfolio?

Michael, good point. I’m sure your list might never end if we look further into it. That relates to my question about society at large. It’s difficult to think that our actions alone can make a difference. But if we continually raise the issues and provoke more people to ask these same questions, I think it can help.

Kate, I looked into that, which had me wondering about labelling requirements across borders. Maybe US labels need to show sodium content, whereas other countries don’t.

Matthew, I’m extremely grateful for your recommendations. Thank you very much. Replying to your email now.

Andrea, yours is an excellent reason for taking the self-employed route. For me, too, religion is an area in which I believe I can’t offer my best work. This goes back to the point about harming our own business by such client/designer misalignment.

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Ethics is not an “all or none” issue. David is raising a valid question that graphic designers should think about. Once you begin to dig into your clients’ backgrounds and associations a bit it’s almost never easy, comfortable, or clear to determine whether or not their ethics are the same as yours and how that will influence your own behavior and decision about whether to work for them or not.

In a recent op-ed column title “Stumbling Into Bad Behavior” for the NY Times about economics the author states:

“Our confidence in our own integrity is frequently overrated. Good people unknowingly contribute to unethical actions, so reforms need to address the often hidden influences on our behavior. “… When we fail to notice that a decision has an ethical component, we are able to behave unethically while maintaining a positive self-image. No wonder, then, that our research shows that people consistently believe themselves to be more ethical than they are.” (Source:

This article calls for an understanding of the psychology behind decision making when it comes to ethics. In David’s post about the ethics of Coca-cola he is not telling us what to think (going righteous), but merely asking us to think about it – what’s wrong with that? I applaud David for asking hard questions and encouraging designers to think about, and understand their actions.

Coca-cola’s influence on us spreads far wider than the issue of how it affects our health. You can read a post about Coca-cola, corporate sponsorship, and cultural influence here:

I turned down my *very first* web design freelance gig, years ago, because it was for a company that promoted hunting trips to Southern Africa. Now, it was so-called “ethical” hunting, where the hunting only takes place in areas where there is an ‘oversupply’ of animals, so it’s not as if they were the ‘bad guys’ etc – but still, I JUST COULDN’T say yes. I was pretty desperate for the cash flow back then, but there was nothing that would have made me felt ok about it. If there’s a reason to say “No” ten it’s always better than saying “yes” no matter how desperate you may be, not when your karma is at stake.


The most compelling point to me is that personal feelings (morals, ethics, anything) factor in if they’ll affect the work. Everyone has this; for me, in the education world, there are projects I can’t take because I simply don’t understand them well enough to do an excellent job or my thoughts on their value/effectiveness/place in the overall debate could restrict my ability to help.

The point: it’s not that I’m exercising my personal, societal, moral, political etc. will, it’s just that I can’t provide a service like I ought to. In those cases, I do my best to refer them to someone who I think can help.

Maybe it’s just a rhetorical point, but I think it’s important to note that an objection should come in terms of what’s best for a client rather than what’s on our shopping list or what lever we pull in the voting booth.

Thank you David for raising these important questions.
In my experience I never function well when I feel I’m not being paid, hence valued enough and the results always suffer.
I suspect it would be the same if I accepted to work on a project I don’t care for.
I think the best we can do as individuals and designers is to question everything and constantly improve ourselves through learning and sharing issues among fellow designers.

Boycott capitalism? Really? In favor of what… socialism? communism? No thanks!
Matthew, I couldn’t agree with your comments more!

Coke also varies depending on where it is sold. If you buy a soft drink from ‘draft’ it’s made from concentrate and often tastes weird depending on how it’s made up (I had one recently that tasted of bleach!). Coke in a bottle often has corn syrup if it’s in the USA but sugar cane in places like Mexico (it tastes better with sugar cane). Having just come back from the USA, your choices of drink are a tad limited unless you love sodas!

Coca Colas mission statement was to have Coke running out of taps in every home in the world (so said a friend of mine who worked in marketing for Coke).

I’ve worked with Coca Cola in the past, but I wouldn’t any more. I want to work on things I believe in. You do better work when you believe in what you do.

Sugar to hide salt? How about sugar just because its sugar, and its tastes effing good? No need for a vast conspiracy there. People don’t have to be tricked into liking sugar.

I don’t know of anyone who actually thinks drinking coke is good for you. It obviously isn’t. Then again, neither is excessive alcohol. But wait. Do beer brewers just put alcohol in their drinks to hide something? Gasp! Alcohol makes you pee as well! I smell something fishy.


I thought it was kind of funny to read this post, then return to your main page, go down two items, and find a vintage collection of Guinness “For Strength” posters. Did any of those artists from years past wrestle with the idea of presenting an alcoholic drink as something akin to a health drink? To me, these ads have a far more destructive and dangerous message than anything I’ve seen from Coke (although they’re fantastic from a design point of view). Just something to think about.

Interesting reads, Eileen. I added your link to the foot of my post, and I agree that it’s not always an “all or none” issue. How far do we take it? Do we stop at the goals of a company as a whole, or do we continue on to the actions of individual people within a company? When the individual is a company’s face, I find it’s easier to decide.

Vanessa, definitely a relevant factor — how your working relationships make you feel, regardless of compensation. Matthew makes his most compelling point whether or not our personal feelings will affect the outcome, but how can we measure any negative results without completing the project? The inability makes it better to stay clear from the outset.

Lee, caught a few of your photos from the US. Looks like you had a great time. Was good to see. I’m curious if these days you’d work on any more alcohol packaging design.

Andrea, my pleasure. Thank you.

Larry, great question. I’m sure that if you search a little further you’re likely to find more contradictory sentiment. It goes back to what Eileen said, and how I think that with ethics there are more grey areas than black or white. In an ideal world, all of the projects we take-on will be pearly white, and it can only help our cause if we’re actively searching for them.

Just to make a little clarification salt doesn’t equal sodium.

@Kate – Don’t look for salt in the ingredients, look for sodium in the nutritional information panel.

Next, the arguments of this conspiracy are just bogus:

· Drinking a pizza? Two slices of pizza have around 1400 mg of sodium.
· Caffeine? Just compare it with some ol’ good tea, it usually doubles it. You wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea, right?
· Salt? Let’s put things into perspective. If a pinch of salt is 1/16 tsp, it has 150mg of sodium. So, no. They’re not using sugar to mask saltiness.

Sensationalism at its best.

He’s making a case against Coca-Cola with the wrong arguments. The culprit is sugar and it’s high caloric content. Period.

And about wine. Your skepticism is in the wrong place David. It makes your heart good becasue it’s a cheap source of antioxidants:

Taking into consideration most common modern diets, a glass of wine a day is a great way to take care of your antioxidants intake.

Returning to the main point, at the end of the day it’s a personal decision and you should take full responsability of the outcome. Then, you shouldn’t judge others without a full grasp of their context becasue the ethical line is always context dependent.

Let’s return to Big Tobacco for a second to illustrate that it’s seldom a black and white decision. Would you take the job if it was a packaging project that allowed you to use a full side to make a case against tobacco smoking? And take into consideration that in this age any project has the potential to go viral…

Either there is no salt in Cola here or my friend didn’t look good enough (though she’s a nutritionist so I’m pretty sure she’d know what to look for..). Salt is NaCl, and would be listed as ”zout” or ‘natrium’ here (Na for Natrium, you guys are weird ;). And I’m sure they have to list it on the label if it’s in there).

Maybe it depends on the kind of Coke you buy? I’ve seen some google images of Coke labels, some with no sodium and some with 3.something grams. But just that the word sodium is on the label (even with the 0) is a little odd. (I mean, peanuts 0 isn’t on there either).

As for ethical design – I don’t have the luxury of not accepting work out of principal, but I’d like to think I’d reject companies I really didn’t agree with if I had. Not too sure if I’d deny something like Cola though.

Guess we better stick with water (from the local stream) and fresh cut grass for our daily nutrition. Coke, you disappoint me—always thought I was sipping on something else. Darn. Shoot.

Hi David,

I’m a young graphic designer and I’m in the first year of my career. I got a great opportunity to work at an agency who has the big clients you’re talking about and I asked myself the same question.

During this year I discovered that it is these companies that invest in the technology and development to try and improve life, also in areas where they might have destroyed it. So in a way they (multinational businesses) invest more in the problem then we do, I can’t blame them for that. At last I think we as individuals can’t change a thing, but a group can. Great article, it got me thinking again!

How about a thought from the other direction.

I buy print for our internal agency. I work for a non-profit that works with extremely vulnerable children.

We will not work with any designer, vendor, or company of any sort that we know creates, supplies, or has any kind of business relationship with someone who creates, sells, or supplies sexually explicit material. We had to stop working with a printer we really loved because their company began printing pornographic material in a different plant. But we felt it was worth it. How can we say we want to help vulnerable children if we give money to companies in opposition to that?

We can’t afford the possible accidental cross contamination and we certainly can’t afford the perception of contributing to something that might even touch on the area of extremely vulnerable children.

So while you definitely need to go with your own personal beliefs and principles in who you choose to take on as a client, also consider how it might affect other clients you have or will have.

The lack of ethics is not an exclusive attribute of major corporations. Mom and pop small businesses can be corrupt and people in general all have their levels of honesty.
The thing is so many people are afraid to live up to what they know to be right. Even thieves know right from wrong, but they make a choice and live with the consequences.
As a designer I see myself as an artist…like most artists I have to feel inspired to work on something or my work is likely to be less than my best. There are many projects that would make me feel good about myself and my work and there are just as many that might make me feel like……
As for me the best way to avoid compromising my values is to seek out projects that won’t mess with my conscience. That might be extremely difficult if you work for a design firm …much easier if you are a freelancer.
As for coke…….they did not invent taste buds. Don’t forget…. the original recipe contained cocaine. As for corporate ethics..deception, false advertising, and bait and switch tactics have been around since the dawn of civilization….20th century corporations didn’t invent it but as long as people allow themselves to be duped..these practices will not cease.
My opinion…. we need to worry about our own ethics

as designers and not pad our bills with phony materials costs, extra hours, or for hours we spent playing ping pong in our offices while we “waited” for inspiration, we shouldn’t charge retail prices for materials we got at wholesale prices and we should never steal the artwork of others and then sign our name to it. If you want some ethics discussions we can start in our own “designer” backyards.

I sleep at night by doing design work for non-profits and educational institutions. It wouldn’t hurt if more people donated a few hours to a good cause to balance out the sometimes ugly corporate side of design and capitalism! :)

Philosophers have been debating morals for thousands of years and there has yet to be a decisive decision on what is considered “good and evil.” Should the designer acquire any moral baggage while doing work for a less-than-reputable company even if that designer hasn’t done anything to harm a soul? In my opinion: no. The moral conflicts should be left for the people who commit moral injustices. The designer is just trying to make a living and survive.

Of course, there’s some lines no one is willing to cross, but still the choice is purely subjective in the end.

Great Post. Cheerio.

Love the chat.

I thought this was interesting: You know that Vitaminwater drink? The one from Coca-Cola that comes in 500ml bottles? Six teaspoons of sugar in every one. The Advertising Standards Authority concluded a poster that advertised the drink was untruthful.

If you’re like me you’ll check the ingredients and nutritional values on labels, but you’ll find it hard to tell just what quantities are involved. I know what six teaspoons is, but labels don’t make it that easy for us (the percentage of daily amounts help a lot — I often use that guide for saturated fats in particular).

CA, there’s definitely a level of sensationalism there. At the same time, Robert might’ve been referring to the “Big Gulps” when he said it was like drinking a pizza. I agree with you, though. One positive is how his presentation prompted this post, and everyone’s comments. It’s good to talk more on the topic.

I wasn’t clear on your tobacco point. If you get to design the packaging I doubt you’d be responsible for the specific warnings or the rotten-teeth imagery, etc. A little off-topic, I went to a friend’s house at the weekend. He asked me to bring some cigarettes. £7 for 20! More than double the price when I used to smoke.

Great link for the antioxidants. Alan really seems to know what he’s talking about.

Kate, I don’t know, either. I suppose I could only make that call after knowing exactly the project was.

K-eM, I hadn’t thought about your scenario. Worth considering, for sure, thank you.

Meredith, starting in our own backyards is a great call. Some kind of ethical code for designers.

This statement…

“Salt — 55mg of sodium per can. It’s like drinking a pizza.”

Quite possibly the most inaccurate comparison I have ever read. Maybe if Coke was loaded with an equivalent amount of saturated fat, carbohydrates, protein, cholesterol…then we have a case. Also, according to the Pizza Hut nutrition guide…one slice of cheese pizza has (530mg sodium) that’s significantly higher than the suggested amount of (55 mg) within a can of Coke.

Sugar and sodium are found in almost every processed food and beverage. In some instances they may be found in natural form, and in many cases they are bound with other ingredients. Regardless,
it is up to the individual consumer to make responsible health and lifestyle decisions.

**Just realized about 5 people wrote this same post

I’ve been drinking several cans of Diet Coke a day since my teens (I’m 34).

– My teeth are knackered

– I doubt it helps with my weight (has shot up last 2 years, but a variety of factors I think)

– Feel I need a DC after a few hours if I wake up and there’s none in the fridge.

Lots of issues at play. First, obviously there is no way on Earth this substance is not physically addictive at some, possibly multiple levels. Also, one of my earliest memories of drawing is the Coca-Cola logo :) When the cans changed design in the UK in 1985/6 – a significant leap from previous smaller, incremental changes, at first I was truly horrified. I was 9 :)

When I feel the urge to drink a Coke, I don’t push Coke’s human rights issues to the back of my mind, I don’t even think about it, I just go to the fridge. Same with Apple – at that most significant moment when they bring out a new product I want, I don’t give a moment’s thought to Chinese factory workers I might read about in the Guardian magazine.

Would I jump at a chance to design for Coke or Apple tomorrow?

Of course I would. So would you.

I absolutely agree with the idea of trying to draw some lines on what you feel comfortable with. But we are in the business of selling. Everyone has their price whether it be in cash terms or professional advancement working on that big name but just slightly evil project.

Unless you are willing to limit your options quite severely, design for clients is going to make you uncomfortable at some point if you plan to grow. Most of us, admit it or not, would like to work for bigger, more impressive clients. They don’t get that big by somehow dodging the rules of capitalism, and neither can you, except in exceptionally rare circumstances.

I need a Coke.

Wow, I can’t believe some people are a bit snippy for David bringing up an interesting topic.

I for one, am very interested in what lines other creatives draw with regards to what organisations they won’t work for. But then again I guess I’m a bleeding heart lefty and I am not a fan of capitalism.

I turned down a day job (i should point out I am an emerging photographer and work as a publications officer to pay the rent/bills) working for a scientific organisation that asked me in the interview whether I had an problem with animal testing. I did, so I turned it down, a real shame as I’d have been paid a lot of money and the people were lovely, it would’ve been a great working environment. But I cannot condone testing on cats.

No company is perfect, sometimes we need to pay the rent and bills so our lines get a bit more flexible, but what is the point of having principals if we don’t live them? What is the point of taking from the same hand that we believe is evil and does not benefit the world in any way.

Great topic David. I am enjoying what lines others say they draw when it comes to their business.

Hi David,

Hmm, ethics, where do you draw the line? You ask if I’d work on alcohol packaging again (I’ve done a fair bit in the past). Well, it depends on what it is and how the company acts. A Fairtrade wine or a co-operative farm in Mexico that treats it’s workers well would be on the radar.

It’s a thin line. You have to take each case on it’s individual merits.

In short we work for clients we believe in, who share the same values we do. If we would use what they do, we would work for them. The company is an extension of our own values.

My favourite drink is water and occasionally vine and i find it is interesting that everybody knows that coke is not healty but people still drink it specialy kids and thats bad, however they have a great marketing ( i mean coca cola) and it seems that that counts more than the real facts.

Ethics, hmm… just think about what would happen if all the unhealty products would disapear, how many jobs would disapear worldwide…

I think you should make your own rules, trying to make this world to be a better place. And who knows maby some day humans will be more important than raising money and profit.

We live in the consumerist society, where money rules everything. Not many people have the time to bother about the quality of food, neither producers nor consumers. If you look into it, all the food we eat is really bad for us. Chicken fed on hormones, tomatoes ripen by gas, flavour enhancers (makes you want to eat stuff that you don’t want to eat and get addicted to it), sterilised packaging, aspartame (which causes aggression in children), etc… A lot of health (as well as many other) problems are the result of eating all this ‘food’.
I used to have my own garden, big enough to feed a family and when I go to a supermarket I can’t find much food there at all. Besides, I’ve heard that there is a law that allows you not to mention an ingredient if it doesn’t exceed certain percentage. And if you read the ingredients like I do, you might have noticed that sometimes it says on the packaging “flavouring”. Who knows, what it might be. I am glad that I don’t design any food/drink packaging as I wouldn’t be able to.
I think nutrition is a serious problem, it’s a shame I can’t actually do much about it.

@CA, sodium is salt. I’m not pointing a finger at you but just wanted to clarify it for others who might be wondering about it. Salt is “made up of the elements of sodium and chlorine”. There are many different types of salts–sodium chloride, magnesium sulfate, potassium iodide, etc.
I’m not in anyway as knowledgeable as a nutritionist but here is the link where I got the information from:

@David, I honestly am not 100% sure if I can turn down a huge company such as Coca Cola if I really needed a great sum of money as soon as possible and could not find another job that would pay me as good. (Hopefully, I will never be in such a situation.) However, I do agree with designers here saying that they perform the best when they work for a company or products they believe in.

Although I would love to only work with the companies that share the same ethics and values as I do, I think it’s not that easy to do so. I live in U.S. and it seems like most companies including the ones that we believe to be very ethical are actually somewhat unethical in one way or another.

I wouldn’t want to work with companies that want me to help them promote very unhealthy and/or overly processed foods. Even when grocery shopping, my first choice is always 100% natural and organic. However, I probably have been supporting those “unethical” companies in a way by dining at restaurants that use those exact unhealthy, overly-processed foods or ingredients to make the dish.

I love animals and care about the welfare of the animals before they are slaughtered for human consumption, etc. I would never work for companies that are involved in treating animals in an inhumane way. However, some of my personal items have parts made with leather and I doubt that the leather is from an “ethical” supplier/farmer. I try to avoid buying stuff with leather on them but sometimes I just cannot find what I need with great quality that’s made without genuine leather.

What I’m trying to say is…I believe that it’s almost impossible to only work with companies that are 100% ethical, depending on the location. However, for anyone who genuinely cares about morals and ethics, I think we as designers can always choose to work with companies that are always striving for the best in terms of their morals and ethics over other companies that are not.

No one and no company is perfect anyway.

That sums it up nicely, Bernadette:

“What’s your price?”

Lee, I like your thoughts about packaging design for alcoholic drinks. If the wine producer, for example, was Fairtrade it’d definitely help provoke a healthier working relationship.

Jessica, excellent chat.

Thank you very much for the great contributions, Natalie, Irina, et al.

Interesting way of posting this issue, David. As it is for discussion, I, too agree with those who say here that it is a matter of being responsible of your own conscious action. People take advantage of each other all the time and for me, it is more of a matter of owning up to our share and suffer/endure the consequences than putting blame on others. With how things are in my lifestyle today, I simply enjoy anything in moderation and experience things that take to my interest.

I would definitely have problems taking on clients like Xe (formerly known as Blackwater), Koch Industries, the US Chamber of Commerce, etc. These companies engage in activities I find completely abhorrent and by taking their money and providing them with my services, I am implicitly (if not explicitly) giving approval to those activities.

I would also refuse any jobs that involves deception. In the context of the Coke thing, take a look at how food companies fought against disclosing the amount of Transfat in foods after it was discovered how nasty that particular kind of fat is. And look how many different ways Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is hidden on labels.

But it is not just the nefarious stuff either. I once ran across some ads against the use of Meth that came across as saying Meth would make you sell your body for $15, pimp out your girlfriend, beat the crap out of your mother and other stuff. I find those ads to be extremely hyperbolic and a bit deceptive especially in light of the fact that methamphetamine are prescribed for ADHD and weight loss. I would have ethical issues participating in this campaign as either designer or photographer because I am not one of those “well the end justifies the means” person but rather “deceive me one, my trust is gone and my never be earned back” type.

My first degree was in education and I will never forget something my program adviser said in class about tailoring research in order to get grants. They said they could do it for the money, but that would “make [them] a whore.” I take the same stance in my work.

Emma, taking responsibility plays a huge role. I agree. Too many are quick to point blame elsewhere.

Jon, I’ve heard that when others order takeaway, they ask for their meals to be prepared without MSG. Do you think that’s common? Excuse my ignorance but I know little about it.

I’ve never heard of people requesting it not be in their food. I used to have a friend with an MSG allergy and she just had to navigate a mine field when it came to food choices. She wouldn’t eat much new stuff but rather would find things she could eat and stick to that stuff. She had to learn all the ways MSG is disguised on food labels, etc. When she asked in restaurants often the wait staff did not know, and of course while the restaurant may not add it during the cooking process, they can’t vouch for their supplier.

I know what that minefield’s like, Jon. My wife has coeliac disease which is an intolerance to gluten — a collective name for a type of protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Even if a chef says there’s none of that in the ingredients, cross-contamination easily occurs when the same cooking utensils are used for meals that do contain it. According to Coeliac UK, 8.5 million Europeans have been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease, but in my experience there are very few restaurants making it clear they cater to the group.

I once saw a job posting for a weight-loss program or supplement. The project? Take “before and after” photos, lots of them covering different ages, genders, races. YOU find or take the photos, both, now. Doctor them to make the person look overweight before and thinner after. Completely fabricate it. Not a chance I would take that job. That would make me feel like an accessory to fraud. Other lines are not so clear.

I must admit, I do like the occasional glass of coke – but do not like the residue it leaves on the teeth after. I have heard that if you put a dirty penny into a glass of coke, that after s short while it comes out clean – wonder if this is true?

@Jessica – You just said that salt is “made up of the elements of sodium and chlorine”. That alone renders your argument invalid. Sodium isn’t salt. If it were so, 2 grams of salt would be 2 grams of sodium, instead of about 0.8 grams.

@David – It clearly was an hypothetical situation, for the time being at least. But, let’s suppose you can. In that case, you seldom get a more direct contact with the customer. A strong message could actually dissuade them to buy the product.

CA, if I’ve understood your question correctly, I’d never accept a project with the intention of decreasing my client’s profits. If I felt that strongly, I’d simply reject the contract.

In my opinion, whatever we do in this life should follow our ethics and values, and design is not an exception.

The reason graphic design and advertising exists is because it works. I think we can all say it’s up to a person to what decisions they make but for some people they are trusting in a company’s word and the way things are marketed to them. Just as sugarless and fat free were marketed as health products convincing the health concious individual to eat it however later coming out that it’s not good for you. I think at some point we need to recognize that our designs and communication processes DO have an effect on people and should make smarter choices in what we design to pursue their pockets. My limit? some RX drugs and Tobacco.

Nice point. I think drinking the occasional Coke is fine and would observe that the Kosher Coke, Mexican and Australian Coke (all made with sugar cane) taste better than U.S. coke.

(HF Corn Syrup is implied to cause greater hunger, and thus greater obesity. Google it and make up your own mind on that one!)

That said, I quit my design and marketing as a job when I was in my early 20s (straight out of college). My employer was working for large companies like Coke, Frito Lay, etc.

I quit because most of the work I was doing was increasing beverage or portion size. I was only doing artwork, but that was our marketing goal. And also to increase the consumption for different age groups (mainly younger) through upsizing campaigns.

So companies do have a right to market, but perhaps there should be some ethical limits on the volume per person sold. Perhaps there should be some limits to growth (in this case) — as market size is not infinite. Also, we did a lot of bottled water and juice campaigns — it does have to be said.

Nice post, btw as ‘thought food’.

Food supply quality is the real issue here though.

Keep innovating,

Christopher Hire

Nice one.

Our job is to bring the positive aspects of a product from it’s simple to hyper levels and of course the idea is to persuade, lure certain target groups, but it’s never to cause any damage. What we’re doing usually doing is making a product look better than it’s contender product.

Too much of anything is not good.

Marketing is the image. Consumption is a personal choice.

The probable danger is the ‘upsize volume’ — so increased ‘occasion’ volume is fine (i.e. small glass bottles of soda-pop are the preferable portion size) — and actually more profitable. Some executives can lack strategic understanding, by directing companies in anti-public health manner, with inevitable impact for shareholders.

My discomfort is upsizing kids purchase size — which leads to obesity. Drinking soda tends to complement fatty snacks. Long-term the ill effects will claw-back past profits, and increase pressure for oversight. Short-term upsizing may deliver a fillip.

Inevitably, upsizing is a moral and health issue, and the trends are moving against that. ‘Supersize Me’ was the canary in the coalmine in the paradigm shift. It’s also wrong!!

Keep innovating,

Christopher Hire
Exec Dir 2thinknow ICP

I am a graphic design student asking the question, “Can graphic designers play a meaningful ethical role in our consumer society, considering the econimic climate and global markets?” Victor Papanek writes “Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is possibly the phoniest field in existence today.” Is it who we work for or what we do that is unethical?

Hi Jayne,

You raise a great question that is at the heart of the debate:

“Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is possibly the phoniest field in existence today.”

I would add however that advertising design can equally be used to further causes that we believe in. Look at some of the work by Chaz Maviyane Davies, the Obama Hope Poster to name a few.

Advertising design in and of itself is not evil – it’s a tool that is used to persuade – the key to whether it is good or bad is what you are using it for.

Hi Eileen,

Thank you for this – very much appreciated. Just started researching this subject and think I am going to get thoroughly hooked.

David : Just followed your article and read all the comments and follow-ups. I’m from India, where all advertisements and sponsorships from alcoholic and tobacco companies are banned in all media (except POS). In our cricket-crazy country, the matches are a huge opportunity for eyeballs, both live and TV. The companies got around by having a manufacturing company which manufactures cricket bats and soda water, using the same logo and related content. This was called “surrogate” advertising. Now, would you be designing ads for a company that makes soda water or cricket bats? Where should your ethics be? I really don’t know if the ad-agencies/designers had any moral/ethical issues.
PS:The Indian Govt. woke up and today even surrogate advertising is banned.

Hi David, I noticed a lot of people saying that everything is ok in moderation which is true. I am just learning about this at the moment but my understanding is that you will find that the sum of each part easily adds up to too much.
If every day you are consuming breakfast cereal, eating a lunch based on refined flour and any kind of processed dinner then, although each constituent is in moderation, you have what is, according to our current understanding, the perfect recipe for obesity and disease.

Sorry if I’ve hijacked your ethical point.

Thank you for making this part of the conversation. As designers we are constantly faced with ethical dilemmas; there are no hard and fast rules. But no matter what your choice – it should always be informed.

I humbly submit this article — the mysteries of Coke.

I had to write it myself because after scouring the internet all the info seems to be in pieces. If you find this interesting please share it.

1. You’ll hear how Coke is a “Secret Formula.”

So there is this talk (above) called “Sugar: The bitter truth” in which the doctor presenting at one point says:

“What’s in Coke? Caffeine. What’s caffeine? A mild stimulant, right? It’s also a diuretic — it makes you pee.

“What else is in Coke? Salt — 55mg of sodium per can. It’s like drinking a pizza.

“So what happens if you take-on sodium and lose water? You get thirstier. Why is there so much sugar in Coke? To hide the salt.

“When was the last time you went to a Chinese restaurant and had sweet-n-sour pork? That’s half soy sauce — you wouldn’t eat that. Except the sugar plays a trick on your tongue. You can’t even tell it’s there.”

So wow, its full of salt — but if you look at people talking about this it turns into a debate. People are bamboozled by the listed ingredients on the bottle which says nothing about salt. Consider this “ingredient” goes in but the result of various ingredients can combine! I think this is the trick. Unless you are a chemist (or biochemist) that talk by Dr Robert H. Lustig might put you to sleep or just be confusing. It’s mainly about sugar — but the point is that if you are fat look out for various kinds of sugar and sweetened drinks, the delivery mechanism. These undermine everything you do to diet, your willpower, your ability to be satisfied and not keep eating and it’s strewn through all kinds of food too — bread, crackers, all kinds of common food in the form of “high fructose corn syrup” which is much sweeter than normal sugar (or sucrose).

Back to salt — is it there — well I suspect strongly that this doctor can back up his claim but doesn’t want to fight openly with this massive company. He is just dropping a tip — look here. If you find the “secret recipe” for Coke which has been outed on the wikis you can see these ingredients (this is not the recipe of today but a historic recipe by the creator of Coke and thought to be related to the recipe of today):

1 oz (28 g) caffeine citrate
3 oz (85 g) citric acid
1 US fl oz (30 ml) vanilla extract
1 US qt (946 ml) lime juice
2.5 oz (71 g) “flavoring,” i.e., “Merchandise 7X”
30 lb (14 kg) sugar
4 US fl oz (118.3 ml) fluid extract of coca leaves (flavor essence of the coca leaf).
2.5 US gal (9.5 l; 2.1 imp gal) water
Caramel sufficient to give color
Ingreditent 7x — is apparently a mix of essential oils dissolved in alcohol (orange, cinnamon, lemon, coriander, nutmeg, neroli)

Some of these have changed or been replaced with other concoctions but when you look into citric acid…

“Citric acid sold in a dry powdered form is commonly sold in markets and groceries as “sour salt,” due to its physical resemblance to table salt. It has use in culinary applications where an acid is needed for either its chemical properties or for its sour flavor, but a dry ingredient is needed and additional flavors are unwanted.”


“Citric acid is used with sodium bicarbonate in a wide range of effervescent formulae.”

Now I don’t know if they mix it with sodium anything but this doctor above was indicating that a great deal of sodium does end up in Coke. Can salt come together from other ingredients that aren’t salt? Why sure. The most obvious schoolboy chemistry mind might remember this rule…

The acid-base neutralization reaction can be put into a word equation:
Acid + base (or alkaline, means the same) → salt + water.

So does Coke have acid and alkaline when it is mixed or cooked — do those ingredients result in sodium or some other kind of salt? We know that citric acid is a sour flavour, so we are already getting this sweet n sour effect there. It’s easy to find that phosphoric acid is a big ingredient in Coke.

“Phosphoric acid is a clear colorless liquid, H3PO4, used in fertilizers, detergents, food flavoring, and pharmaceuticals.”

So definitely heaps of acid, and frankly, many people find that Coke does resemble stomach acid when it warms up. So is there a base in the ingredients? A citrate is a base (or conjugate base). There is 1 oz of caffeine citrate — is it alkaline. What is it? Apparently a strong drug it’s like turbocharged caffine used to treat severe migraines.

“Caffeine citrate functions in much the same capacity as does caffeine, but takes effect more quickly; its speed of dissociation is faster than that of caffeine.”

What about the lime juice in the old recipe above? Well this wiki on the Coke formula stated a replacement for lime juice, and it’s sodium citrate. Your sodium is a big part of NaCl — table salt. (Na = Sodium)

“Add 1 oz (28 g) lime juice (a former ingredient, evidently, that Coca-Cola now denies) or a substitute such as a water solution of citric acid and sodium citrate at lime-juice strength.”

So Coke, to protect your secrets, you don’t really tell us at all on your label what the hell your drink is. Or what it becomes after you mix/cook it. But clearly you are just like the tobacco companies, unethical in design. You want it to be maximum addiction, more thirst, sweet n sour to fool the tongue so we drink copius amounts of a conconction we couldn’t make at home.

Let’s not even start with the essential oils — that’s powerful stuff indeed. All kinds of drug-like magic and toxic effects are potentially in there.

This is all just food for thought. I am sure it’s debatable — its all been made as unclear and spread out so that only food industry chemists are really aware and all the rest of us idiots just accept it as “generally considered safe.”

My analysis…

I make no assertions, I just follow the trail and open the door opened by various people suggesting that Coke isn’t what it appears to be. In any case what we see here is that generally there are way, way more ingredients and if you read the wikis — some bizarre company apparently removes the cocaine from the coca leaves (the only one company that is allowed in Atlanta where the Coke company is based). Then an extract of the very same now apparently “purified” form of a dangerous drug is a big ingredient in Coke. There are other tightly held secret ingredients — only buddha (and two Coke executives) know what that is — is it just a mix of oils or is there something really unique?

I designed the Coca Cola graphics bottle years ago. I wouldn’t do it again as we only work on things we believe in. I had no control back then as I worked for an agency, now we have our own design company. You do better work when you believe in what you do.

Marketing and advertising are one of the biggest drivers of human behavior. If our industry had more morals rather than chasing big money, I believe the world would be a better place.

I have a sense that the euphoric feeling after consuming coca cola must come from something more than caffeine. Perhaps some micro residues of cocaine in the flavour extract contribute to this euphoria, as the caffeine content is too small to cause the effect.

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