Ads linking coffee with achievement called 'misleading'

Coffee advertisers have left Juan Valdez picking coffee beans on the hillsides of Colombia, and have turned to rock stars, sports heroes, and actors to sell their product.

''Coffee lets you calm yourself down, and picks you up,'' declares a controversial series of new television commercials aimed at young potential coffee drinkers. But at least one public-interest group says the ads are misleading, and plans to take action against them.

The ads, featuring such ''coffee achievers'' as actress Cicely Tyson, singer David Bowie, and pro quarterback Ken Anderson, are part of a year-long, $20 million advertising campaign by the National Coffee Association (NCA) to reverse declining coffee sales. Coffee consumption has fallen almost 40 percent since 1962.

To counter this decline, the NCA is aiming a series of four television commercials at the ''Pepsi generation,'' the 18-to-34 age group, which now drinks relatively little coffee, according to William J. Brooks, public relations director of the NCA. Mr. Brooks says the commercials project an image of achievement among coffee drinkers.

But statements about coffee providing ''serenity and contentment'' are wrong and misleading, says Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

Dr. Jacobson says his organization, a private ''food watchdog group,'' will probably petition the Federal Trade Commission to ''stop or at least correct these ads within the next two weeks.

''If (the advertisers are) going to tout the advantages of coffee,'' he says, ''it would be socially responsible for them also to mention its drawbacks.''

Jacobson says the caffeine in coffee can cause anxiety, nervousness, and insomnia, and may be related to other serious physical problems.

Jim Green, spokesman for the US Food and Drug Administration, says caffeine is at present considered ''safe to use in moderation.'' At the same time, he says ''caffeine is a drug, and a stimulant.''

In 1980 the FDA issued a statement saying that pregnant women should ''use caffeine-containing products sparingly.'' The FDA is continuing to study the substance. Mr. Green says a new report will be released soon.

Brooks says the ''weight of scientific evidence states clearly that there is no danger for normal (coffee) consumption.''

''We are not promoting caffeine,'' says Ron Walter, account supervisor with Advertising to Women, the advertising agency handling the campaign. ''We're simply talking about a beverage that comes in a caffeinated and a decaffeinated form.''

Mr. Walter adds that the coffee commercials don't say that coffee ''pharmacologically causes the drinker to relax.'' Rather, he says, they refer to the fact that generally people settle back and relax while drinking a cup of coffee.

Brooks says that an annual survey sponsored by a coffee-growers' lobby shows that people in the targeted age group are ''very achievement-oriented.'' He says the survey shows that ''strong links between achievement and coffee drinkers.'' Citing the association's report, he says coffee drinkers are better-educated and generally better-paid.

The flashy commercials also feature comedian Jane Curtin, singer Joe Jackson, Ann and Nancy Wilson of the rock group ''Heart,'' author Kurt Vonnegut, and marathon runner Allison Roe.

''We're not trying to say that because (the celebrities) drink coffee, they are achievers,'' says Walter. ''We chose people who were achievers, who also happen to be coffee drinkers.''

Obviously the campaign is designed to increase coffee consumption, Walter says. But there's more to it than that. ''We're looking to change the image that coffee is an old-style drink for sedentary people,'' he adds. 'We're trying to show that young people drink it, too.''

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