Pop quiz: What do Coca-Cola and Lance Armstrong have in common? Both recently shamelessly admitted on national TV to some guilt, though neither appeared very “guilty.”
In the case of the world's No. 1 beverage company, Coca-Cola unveiled a new ad campaign that finally acknowledges its contribution to the obesity epidemic (wait a minute, soda makes us fat?!) but not without patting itself on the back. The first two-minute ad called “Coming Together" aired last week during the most-watched programs on CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC, and the second 33-second spot debuted right before American Idol. A third will appear just before the Super Bowl on February 3 (catch a 60-second preview here).
The first ad focused on calories, spotlighting Coke's 180 low- to zero-calorie selections (out of its more than 650 beverages) as one “solution” to the obesity crisis. No calories, no problem, right? Wrong, says body-image expert Leslie Goldman, M.P.H., author of Locker Room Diaries and blogger/founder of Health Breaks Loose.
“Some studies have suggested that diet sodas may actually be linked to weight gain,” Goldman says. “The theory is that these diet sodas are super sweet, which signals your brain that food is coming. But when you don't give your body the calories it's expecting, it starts craving food, which is why you end up consuming more calories throughout the day.”
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To this, Coca-Cola offered a another “solution” in its second commercial, dubbed “140 happy calories.” You can easily burn these calories off with 75 seconds of laughing or doing a victory dance after bowling a strike. Really, Coke?
“You can burn 140 calories in about 12 minutes of running, but not 75 seconds of laughing,” Goldman confirms. “Besides,” she adds, “140 calories isn't a big deal in a healthy, well-balanced eating plan. The issue is, those calories are totally empty—there are no nutrients. It's better to have a 140-calorie non-fat Greek yogurt with fresh berries than a soda.”
And while Goldman admits that not everything that passes your lips needs to be nutritious, she also notes that drinking a can of pop a day can add up to nearly 1,000 calories a week. That's a pound a month or 12 pounds a year!
Ironically many women are psychologically hooked on soda, thinking it's a way to keep their figures slim and seize control over their caloric intake, Goldman says. And why wouldn't they believe that when sexy super-stars like Sofia Vergara (check out her Diet Pepsi ad) and Beyonce (she just signed a $50-million dollar deal with Pepsi to perform at the upcoming Pepsi Super Bowl halftime show) are promoting these bubbly brands. “It makes people believe that if you drink these sodas, you will look like these women,” Goldman says.
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The ads, however, do promise to make some small positive changes—such as offer more visible calorie counts on labels and improve portion control by packaging products in smaller cans and bottles—to address the long-overlooked health concerns of their loyal customers.
Still, none of this negates the fact that soda companies—Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and the like—are pushing products that have been linked to a whole host of issues beyond obesity, including diabetes, osteoporosis, and tooth decay, Goldman says. If they really want to make a difference, they need to stop acting like a tobacco company, where a cancer warning on the label erases all culpability, she says. You started the conversation, Coke, now step up and see where you can take it.