NEW YORK - 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.