Critics Jeer Coke's Entrance Into Obesity Discussion

Coca-Cola unveiled a two-minute commercial yesterday that puts itself squarely in the national discussion about obesity -- as well as in the crosshairs of long-time critics. It’s the opening salvo in what Coke promises will be an ongoing campaign.

“For the first time ever, a soft drink company is marketing itself as part of the solution,” observes Chris Jansing on “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” in a report that opens with the warm-and-fuzzy “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing” spot.

“I think what they’re trying to do is get in front of this issue,” Russell Winer of New York University Stern’s Marketing Department tells Jansing. 

“The ad lays out Coca-Cola's record of providing drinks with fewer calories and notes that weight gain is the result of consuming too many calories of any kind -- not just soda,” writes the AP’s Candice Choi.

Critics remain skeptical, however, as USA Today’s Nanci Hellmich points out, suggesting that the company is pretending that it’s “part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”

"This new advertising campaign is just a damage control exercise and not a meaningful contribution toward addressing obesity," Michael F. Jacobsen, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells the Los Angeles Times’ Tiffany Hsu. CSPI, a perennial adversary, was behind Alex Bogusky’s “skewering” of Coke’s polar bears in “The Real Bears” spot that made a splash in October.

“No nutritionist would ever tell you that it’s okay to substitute calories from fruits and vegetables for soda in order to achieve weight loss,” writes Deborah Kotz in the Boston Globe. “With that in mind, I think Coke’s touchy feeling ‘come together’” theme in this commercial rings that much more hollow.”  

The calories in/calories out approach the ad takes indeed has been under attack in recent years. All calories are not created equal, according to researchers such as Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco and author of Fat Chance

"The reason to eat your sugar as whole fruit and not juice (or soda) ... is because the fiber helps reduce the rate of absorption from the gut into the bloodstream," Lustig tells CNN’s Ben Tucker. "When you juice it, it's all going to you and your liver gets overwhelmed and you get sick."

Many of the comments under the YouTube version of “Coming Together” to date also are negative, along the lines of “Coca Cola: It's not our fault you're fat.™” 

“Finding a solution will take continued effort from all of us,” the spot concludes with a coke.com/cometogether URL. “At Coca-Cola, we know that when people come together, we can make a real difference.” 

“Be OK,” a 30-second spot showing activities that burn off the 140 calories in a regular can of Coke, is part of a global campaign that debuts on  “American Idol” tomorrow, reports Ad Age’s Natalie Zmuda.

John Sicher, publisher of Beverage Digest, tells the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom that soda companies have avoided the issue of obesity for too long. “Letting the industry’s adversaries define it isn’t smart or in its self-interest,” says Sicher.

"It's the first time we're really leaning into the conversation," Coca-Cola spokeswoman Diana Garza Ciarlante tells Zmuda. "We're doing it in a way that's anchored in what people expect of Coca-Cola. They expect us to be part of the dialogue, to lead where we can and to be responsive."

In the end, as another video, “Together for Good,” points out, “business, government, teachers, scientists and moms will all need to come together to have an impact on one of our nation’s biggest issues.” Whether Coke should have the leadership position is highly debatable, but it’s a necessary voice in the discussion. Cynicism over its motives won’t move the dial on the scales.

The beauty of having a multibillion-dollar advertising budget and 125 years of equity with consumers is that you can, more easily than an academic or media critic might, raise awareness of the issue. Putting pressure on the beverage industry is proving to be the right fulcrum for activists on the obesity front lines, from Mike Bloomberg to Michael Jacobsen. And the message that has come out of it is more wholesome, certainly, than Mean Joe Greene’s “Have a Coke and a Smile.”

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