(courtesy: AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK (AP) - Coca-Cola became one of the world's most powerful brands by equating its soft drinks with happiness. Now it's taking to the airwaves for the first time to address a growing cloud over the industry: obesity.
The Atlanta-based company on Monday will begin airing a two-minute spot during the highest-rated shows on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC in hopes of flexing its marketing muscle in the debate over sodas and their impact on public health. The ad lays out Coca-Cola's record of providing drinks with fewer calories over the years and notes that weight gain is the result of consuming too many calories of any kind - not just soda.
The company declined to say how much it was spending on the commercials, which it started putting together last summer.
For Coca-Cola, the world's No. 1 beverage company, the ads reflect the mounting pressures on the broader industry. Later this year, New York City is set to put into effect a first-in-the-nation cap on the size of soft drinks sold at restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas and other venues. The mayor of Cambridge, Mass., has already proposed a similar measure, saying she was inspired by New York's move.
And when PepsiCo Inc., the No. 2 soda maker, recently signed a wide-ranging endorsement deal with pop singer Beyonce, critics called for her to drop the contract or donate the funds to groups that fund health initiatives.
Recent studies have also suggested that sugary drinks cause people to pack on the pounds, independent of other behavior. A decades-long study involving more than 33,000 Americans, for example, suggested that drinking sugary beverages interacts with genes that affect weight and amplifies a person's risk of obesity beyond what it would be from heredity alone.
Mike Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was skeptical about the intent behind Coca-Cola's ads and said that if the company was serious about helping reduce obesity, it would stop fighting soda taxes.
"It looks like a page out of damage control 101," he said. "They're trying to disarm the public."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has been critical of the soft drink industry and last year released a video parodying Coke's famous polar bears becoming plagued with diabetes and other health problems from drinking too much soda.
Coca-Cola said its ads aren't a reaction to negative public sentiment, however. Instead, the idea is to raise awareness about lower-calorie drinks and what it plans to do in coming months, said Stuart Kronauge, general manager of sparkling beverages for Coca-Cola North America.
"There's an important conversation going on about obesity out there, and we want to be a part of the conversation," she said.
In the ad, a narrator notes that obesity is an issue that "concerns all of us" but that people can make a difference when they "come together." The spot was produced by Brighthouse and Citizen2 and is intended to reflect Coca-Cola's corporate responsibility among cable news viewers.
Another ad, which will run later this week during "American Idol" and before the Super Bowl, is much more reminiscent of catchy, upbeat advertising people have come to expect from Coca-Cola. It features a montage of activities that add up to burning off the "140 happy calories" in a can of Coke: walking a dog, dancing, sharing a laugh with friends and doing a victory dance after bowling a strike.
The 30-second ad, a version of which ran in Brazil last month, is intended to address confusion about the number of calories in soda, said Diana Garza Ciarlante, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Co. She said the company's consumer research showed people thought there were as many as 900 calories in a can of soda.
When talking about calories and weight gain, Garza Ciarlante noted that the company had to be careful with the ads to remain consistent with its brand voice and avoid sounding "preachy."
Coca-Cola declined to give details on what it plans for the year ahead. But among the options under consideration is putting the amount of activity needed to burn off the calories in a drink on cans and bottles.
The company noted it has already made several moves to help customers make better choices, such as putting calorie counts on the front of its cans and bottles in the U.S. Last year, it also started posting calorie information on its vending machines ahead of a regulation that will require soda companies to do so by 2014.
Public concern over the calories in soda is apparent in Coca-Cola's changing business. In North America, all the growth in its soda business over the past 15 years has come from low- and no-calorie drinks, such as Coke Zero. Diet sodas now account for nearly a third of its sales in the U.S. and Canada. Other beverages such as sports drinks and bottled water are also fueling growth.
Even with the growing popularity of diet sodas, however, overall soda consumption in the U.S. has declined steadily since 1998, according to the industry tracker Beverage Digest.