Coca-Cola Co. (KO) has taken to television to fight back against an obesity epidemic the world’s largest soft-drink maker has been blamed for fueling.
The company will air ads throughout the year, including one tomorrow on Fox Broadcasting Co.’s “American Idol,” to bring attention to the importance of exercise and calories in curbing obesity. The first two-minute spot aired yesterday on cable TV, highlighting Coca-Cola’s low- and zero-calorie products, the Atlanta-based company said yesterday in a statement.
The commercials are the most overt move yet in a more than three year campaign by Coca-Cola to counter criticism that it contributes to America’s obesity epidemic. Almost 36 percent of adults and about 17 percent of children are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“This is part of Coke’s effort to blunt the opposition they are running into in all different sectors,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, whose 1998 report “Liquid Candy” propelled criticism of sugary drinks. “The opposition is not sitting still these days.”
One of Coca-Cola’s new ads, called “Coming Together,” suggests consumers pay attention to the calories they consume in order to manage their weight. The commercial points out the company “can play an important role” in fighting obesity.
A female narrator goes on to say the company offers more than 180 low- and no-calorie beverages among its more than 650 drinks. This helped reduce calories per serving across the U.S. beverage industry by 22 percent during the past 15 years, according to the ad. Coca-Cola will offer smaller packages in about 90 percent of the U.S. market by the end of the year, it said.
The commercial to debut tomorrow on “American Idol” states that a can of Coca-Cola contains 140 calories and encourages consumers to find fun ways of burning those calories.
Coca-Cola will air 30- and 60-second versions of the ads throughout the year in national broadcast and Spanish language media, according to Diana Garza Ciarlante, a company spokeswoman. She would not disclose spending on the effort.
Health advocates agree soft drinks are an unhealthy source of sugar in Americans’ diets. Obesity in the U.S. comes at a “staggering” financial cost, the CDC has said. Everything from treatments for diabetes to lost work by obese employees cost Americans about $147 billion in 2008, according to one estimate cited by the agency.
Obesity is measured by using weight and height to calculate a number called body mass index, according to the CDC. An adult who is 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs 203 pounds or more is considered obese.
In 2009, President Barack Obama recommended exploring a federal tax on sugary drinks to help pay for health-care reform. Lawmakers in 30 states then proposed levying their own soda taxes on the $74 billion U.S. soft drink industry.
Obama’s suggestion prompted Coca-Cola Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent to call the idea of a federal tax on soft drinks “outrageous.” Kent has argued that programs encouraging exercise and health education in schools and communities are more effective at curbing obesity.
“I have never seen it work where a government tells people what to eat and what to drink,” Kent said in September 2009, responding to an audience question at the Rotary Club of Atlanta. “If it worked, the Soviet Union would still be around.”
The comments marked a shift in Coca-Cola’s approach to soft drink critics. Until that point, the company let its chief lobbying association, the American Beverage Association, handle most of the push back.
Between 2009 and 2011, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo Inc. (PEP) and the American Beverage Association spent as much as $70 million on lobbying and issue ads, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a proponent of soda taxes. The money helped defeat efforts to enact such levies in 30 states.
Last year, the beverage industry squared off against New York City, whose health department plastered placards all over New York’s subways comparing sugary drinks with globs of fat and packets of sugar.
The ABA countered with its own subway ads touting lower- calorie options and package sizes as progress against obesity. They were part of a nationwide public relations campaign started in February, and an offshoot of similar ABA programs in recent years.
In September, New York City’s Board of Health voted to restrict sales of sugary soft drinks to no more than 16 ounces a cup in restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums and arenas after it was proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Coke shares rose 0.9 percent to $37.32 at the close in New York. The stock advanced 3.6 percent in 2012, its fourth consecutive year of gains.
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