Coca-Cola has been having a rough time lately — if such a thing can be said of a corporation with an after-tax profit of over $8.5 billion last year. Sales are down (from roughly $48 billion in 2012 to $46.9 billion in 2013, a 2% drop), in an industry accustomed to steady growth around the world. And as we noted last week and in older posts here at Diabetes Flashpoints, public health officials across the United States have become more assertive in their efforts to publicize the dangers — and limit the consumption — of sugary soft drinks. Many of these officials assert that “liquid sugar” plays a unique role in the obesity epidemic (and the related Type 2 diabetes epidemic) that the United States and other countries are experiencing.
But Coke, the leading soft drink manufacturer in the United States and worldwide, isn’t ceding any ground to its critics. The company has long maintained that “all calories count” when it comes to weight control, whether they come from a sweetened beverage or a dinner entrée. The key to weight control, the company notes, is energy balance: calories in versus calories out. And it has created a new online video advertisement to back up its point. “Happy Cycle” depicts several volunteers riding a stationary bicycle that is connected to a giant calorie-counting and Coke-dispensing contraption, at what appears to be a beach or park in Southern California. Once the person has expended 140 calories on the bicycle — the number found in a 12-ounce can of regular Coca-Cola — the machine dispenses a can of Coke in a playful, whimsical, fun fashion. The ad ends with the slogan, “Movement is happiness. Where will happiness strike next?”
As a CBS News article on the ad notes, some critics believe that the ad is a clever attempt to take a common criticism leveled against soft drink manufacturers — that their products contain “empty” calories, devoid of nutritional value — and neutralize the charge or even spin it into a positive attribute. After all, the “real people” in the video look like they’re having fun riding the bicycle in order to receive an otherwise free soft drink. And, of course, the ad implies that these Coke drinkers should also be free of guilt, since they’ve just burned the calories they’re about to consume in the beverage. In the real world, critics counter, very few people will offset the calories they consume in sugary soft drinks with additional exercise, making these drinks “the biggest single source contributor to child and adult obesity” in the country, according to Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (quoted in USA Today).
Moreover, as the CBS article notes, some analysts believe the new video could backfire as people see how much exercise they’d need to get to offset the calories in a can of Coke. The video states that for a 140-pound person, the average cycling time needed to burn 140 calories is 23 minutes. Bicycling for this long could strike many people as unpleasant or impractical, making them less likely to drink Coke and other sugary soft drinks.
What’s your take on Coke’s ad — is the company doing a public service by encouraging its customers to be physically active? Or is it misleading to suggest that it can be fun and easy to enjoy a sugary soft drink, guilt-free? Should beverage companies stop trying to defend the healthiness of their sugary soft drinks, and instead promote their diet and low-calorie offerings as healthy options? Have you ever been motivated to exercise because you consumed a sugary soft drink or another less-than-healthy treat? Leave a comment below!