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Alex Bogusky Takes on Coca-Cola, Soda Companies

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You could say that Alex Bogusky has gone from subservient chickens to unhappy bears.

After a hiatus of a couple of years, he's back doing what he did for most of his career: making ads. Only this time, the work has a real activist streak. His first target? The soft-drink industry.

And in what seems to be becoming Mr. Bogusky's M.O., he's turned against a company that once lined his pockets. For years, his former agency, CP&B, was employed by Coca-Cola (working on the Coke Zero brand). In a similar fashion, Mr. Bogusky created advertising for Burger King and later launched a book called the "9 Inch Diet" and condemned fast-food companies.

His new video ad -- which was first reported by USA Today -- was created for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group based in Washington. It's a nearly four-minute animated film set to an original track called "Sugar" by singer Jason Mraz.

Throughout, an adorable white polar bear family that resembles the bears associated with the Coca-Cola brand are seen guzzling soda, resulting in ill effects. They grow overweight and their teeth rot. They patronize "Be Happy Please" machines -- an apparent shot at Coke's "Open Happiness" ad campaign and vending machines. At the end, the bears realize they are sad because of how the sugary drinks make them feel and dump the soda.

The video drives viewers to a website, where visitors are invited to share the video via social media.

"Facebook it. Tweet it. Pin it. Google+ it. Email the link to your friends and relatives. Show it at school. Sit down and watch it with your whole family. Host a movie night and watch it before the main feature. Talk about The Real Bears on your YouTube show. Embed it on your website or blog. Have at it. You are the messenger. Sharing is the only means we have to make sure the unhappy truth about soda gets out to the world."

But more inflammatory than the cutesy video is a part of the website that highlights quotes that have historically been made by Coca-Cola execs such as the company's President-CEO Muhtar Kent and Katie Bayne, president-sparkling beverages, North America.

For example, a quote from Ms. Bayne stating that "there is no scientific evidence that connects sugary beverages to obesity" is accompanied by the word "lie" in bold letters. Adjacent to that are statements such as "Truth: Drinking one or two sugary drinks per day increases your risk for Type 2 diabetes by 25%" and "Diabetes can lead to erectile dysfunction."

In an email, Coke spokeswoman Susan Stribling told Ad Age: "This is irresponsible and the usual grandstanding from CSPI. It won't help anyone understand energy balance, which is key according to recognized experts who've studied this issue -- a group that, by default, doesn't include CSPI. Enough said."

The timing is inopportune given the ANA Masters of Marketing conference taking place this week in Orlando, Fla., during which a top Coca-Cola marketing exec is scheduled to speak. However, it's understood that the video's release was not intentionally pegged to that event.

While the ad squarely takes aim at Coke, Jeff Cronin, head of communications for CSPI, said that the group is trying to ensure Americans think twice before drinking all sugary drinks and is taking on all the companies that market them.

"The polar bears imagery has long been cynically co-opted by Coke, and I suppose you could say that with the Real Bears, we're reclaiming the bears for everyone," Mr. Cronin told Ad Age. "But the film doesn't just take on Coca-Cola; it seeks to reposition all sugary drinks, no matter who produced them. Pepsi, Coke and other companies market such drinks as sources of happiness. We want to show that they cause more than their share of sadness."

But can one video about why sugar isn't healthful can persuade consumers to change their behavior?

Mr. Cronin said: "The biggest source of consumers' information about sugary drinks is the sugary-drinks industry, not health experts. We'll never compete with them when it comes to advertising budgets. But this short film has information that will be new to most people."

Mr. Cronin characterizes Mr. Bogusky's railing against the soda industry as "courageous". When asked whether the move could be seen as hypocritical, since Mr. Bogusky once profited from his work on Coca-Cola, he said: "I think for Alex, and for the other people on the creative team who come from the commercial advertising world, making 'The Real Bears' reflects their courageous commitment to happier, healthier communities."

Recently Mr. Bogusky jumped into one of the biggest food fights of the year, dropping $100,000 in support of a California ballot proposition that would require special labels for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. His donation pits him against big packaged-food and drink marketers such as PepsiCo, Nestle, Coca Cola Co. and ConAgra, which have donated millions of dollars to the No on Prop. 37 campaign.

Mr. Bogusky's reappearance in adland came within days of the expiration of a noncompete agreement with MDC Partners. He announced at that time that he was working with Made Movement, a startup focused on American manufacturing set up by some of his former CP&B colleagues. But this is not a Made project; it's one all his own.

Mr. Bogusky was unavailable for comment.

It seems Mr. Bogusky and singer Mr. Mraz have gotten to know each other well; as what may have been a hint this summer that a collboration was coming, Mr. Bogusky tweeted "@jason_mraz is such a good dude. He's greening his tour and you can get involved! http://jasonmraz.com/?p=89851 #TourIsAFourLetterWord"

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