Coca-Cola ads push exercise, soft drink moderation


ATLANTA — In an advertising first for Coca-Cola, the company on Monday launched a commercial about the impact its products have on the nation’s expanding waistlines.

The Atlanta-based beverage giant was on cable news networks with a new appeal to adults: moderate your sugary drink consumption, exercise and consider Coke’s low- or no-calorie drink options such as Coke Zero and Dasani water.

Recent moves by cities like New York to restrict drink sizes in restaurants and movie theaters and continued criticism that the beverage industry is a leading culprit in America’s obesity epidemic has put the company on the defensive. Another ad, the 30-second “Be OK,” will reach younger consumers when it debuts during Wednesday’s “American Idol” season opener.

“All calories count no matter where they come from, including Coca-Cola and everything else with calories,” a narrator’s soothing voice said in the two-minute “Coming Together” spot. “And if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.”

Jeff Cronin, spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based opponent of the soft-drink industry, said, “I think they are trying to forestall meaningful policy on sugary drinks. This is just a damage-control exercise.”

The industry and its critics have been battling over the issue for more than a decade, most notably when the beverage makers agreed to remove their high-calorie drinks from the nation’s schools around 2006.

But the debate continued as critics sought to slow consumption, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, had become so large that on any given day, about half of the population older than the age of 2 consumed a sugary drink.

“A decade or more ago when the obesity became an issue for the beverage industry, the industry’s approach was to hope that it would go away,” said John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. “It didn’t.”

“What Coke is saying is, ‘We want to define ourselves and our products,’ ” he said.

To Coca-Cola leaders, the ads up the ante of efforts they have already made to address the obesity issue and respond to changing consumer tastes. The company has 800 low- or no-calorie options, and its Coca-Cola Foundation has donated millions to organizations that promote exercise. The brand also began encouraging consumers to choose lower-calorie drinks with labeling at vending machines. A typical can of regular Coke, for instance, has 140 calories, a 12-ounce can of Mello Yello has 118 calories, and Diet Coke has 0.

“Coming Together” will run on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News for the rest of the week and will be trimmed to 60- and 30-second spots for later in the year, said Coca-Cola spokeswoman Diana Garza Ciarlante. “Be OK” will run during the pre-game of the upcoming Super Bowl.

Ciarlante did not have specifics on when the ads would run after that or where.

“The intent here is to drive home the idea that the issue of obesity can be addressed, but not just by one enterprise or industry,” she said.

The new ads don’t mean Coca-Cola will depart from its other advertising campaigns, which include its popular polar bears. The company, which is one of the leading advertisers in the world, is reputed globally to spend about $1 billion annually on its marketing campaigns.

Economist Tim Mescon said the advertising is unlikely to quash the criticism, but can help Coca-Cola steer the conversation toward its less calorie-laden products, where the industry is seeing most of its new growth.

“It really is a reminder to the public at large that there are a variety of low- or no-calorie options,” he said.

Mark Pettit, president and chief executive officer of marketing firm Creaxion, said Coca-Cola has taken a smart first step. But it’s the company’s follow-through that will count.

“The key now is authenticity,” he said. “Will Coke be a part of the long-term solution to the obesity epidemic? That’s when we’ll know if this is truly the real thing.”