"For over 125 years, we've been bringing people together. Today, we'd like people to come together on something that concerns all of us: obesity."
So opens a new commercial from Coca-Cola, which goes on to tout the company's 180 low and no-calorie beverage options (roughly 27% of Coke's 650+ beverage portfolio) and claims an overall reduction of 22% in the average number of calories per serving for Coca-Cola's U.S. beverage products since 1997.
Unconvinced by the soda maker's claims to nutritional progress, health advocates took Coke to task.
"So professional. So brilliant. So smart. And so deceitful," food journalist Mark Bittman told New York magazine. "The ad is an astonishing act of chutzpah, explainable only as an act of desperation," nutritionist and New York University professor Marion Nestle wrote on her blog. Jeff Cronin, director of communications at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called the commercial "laughable on its face." CSPI even put out a YouTube response, "Coming Together: Translated" that combines clips from the original Coke ad with "plain English translations" of the beverage maker's claims.
Coke isn't the only soda giant to attract the ire of health advocates. Its new commercial comes on the heels of a $50 million advertising partnership between Beyoncé and PepsiCo, which earned backlash from critics who said the singer was doing a disservice to her involvement with Michelle Obama's obesity-focused "Let's Move" program. (One can only hope Beyoncé will continue her tradition of reactive press conferences and chug a two-liter of Pepsi in front of reporters.)
Coke's critics have no shortage of suggestions for the beverage giant. NYU's Nestle says the company should stop targeting Coke ads to kids and low-income minorities, adjust their pricing structure to make smaller servings cheaper, and scale back advertising in developing countries. CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson has similar tips.
"If Coke was serious about being part of the solution, it could stop advertising full-calorie drinks altogether," Jacobson told Reuters last month. "[It could] set up a pricing scheme where full-calorie drinks were more expensive, or stop opposing proposed soda taxes."
It could. (Cinnabon could also close its doors forever.) But if past Coca-Cola ads have focused almost exclusively on the soda's popularity among polar bears, why the outcry against a mention—however cheerful—of the 140 calories in a single can of Coke?
"I think activist groups are bothered that these companies are successfully selling products that consumers choose to buy," says Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. "They pretty much want [Coke] to stop marketing full-sugar soda. That approach represents a misinformed perspective on how we operate in a free society."
In this particular free society, Americans do love their soda. U.S. consumers drank an average of 42.4 gallons each of carbonated soft drinks last year (roughly 15 ounces a day), and Pepsi/Coke sold a combined 10 billion gallons of soda in 2010. But that number was down from 11.5 billion gallons in 2001. Meanwhile, the national obesity rate increased 5.2 percentage points, to 35.7%, in the same time period.
Health advocates argue that soda is the low-hanging fruit in a bevy of obesity contributors, which include socioeconomic status and Americans' increasingly sedentary lifestyle. After all, soda provides no nutritional value, and a series of recent studies have suggested that sugary drinks play a leading role in packing on the pounds.
"Sugary drinks are a really obvious target," says filmmaker Casey Neistat, who produced a short documentary on New York City's soda ban last year. "You're basically washing down your double cheeseburger with a double cheeseburger, and you don't even realize it."
Although Neistat's documentary comes out in favor of the NYC ban—slated to take effect in March, it will prohibit the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 oz. — he also highlights its almost comical inconsistencies. The ban excludes food establishments that aren't regulated by the city, including Big Gulp perpetrator 7-Eleven, and makes exceptions for drinks whose sugar is added by the customer (a 670-calorie 20-oz. Starbucks Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino, for example).
Indeed, critics of New York's ban have latched onto these loopholes as evidence of an unrealistic approach to obesity (at last count, some 60% of New Yorkers opposed the measure). Stier says it's yet another example of demonizing big soda. Comparable nutrition figures for concentrate-based orange juice have yet to provoke public outcry (8 ounces of Minute Maid OJ contain 120 calories and 24 grams of sugar, compared with 94 calories and 26 grams of sugar for classic Coke) and Sodastream, an Israeli company whose DIY soda maker lets you mix sugary drinks in the comfort of your home, saw its stock increase 37% last year, to little fanfare.
"Obesity is a very real public health problem, but let's address it without using soda as a political battering ram," Stier says. "The most prominent voices on obesity in this country can't stand that Coke wants a seat at the table. Meanwhile, the First Lady herself has said we need everyone to be a part of the solution."