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U.K. Bans Coca-Cola Ad for Misleading Exercise Claims

Consumers Confused About What it Takes to Burn the 139 Calories in a Can

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A Coca-Cola commercial has been banned by the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority for misleading consumers about how much activity they need to do in order to burn off the 139 calories in a can of Coke.

The ban is a blow to the soft drinks giant, which this year changed tactics and vowed to tackle the obesity debate head-on. In January, it produced an ad, called "Coming Together," to highlight its range of low- and no-calorie drinks, and in May it promised to slash advertising to kids under 12.

The offending spot, by Publicis, has also been shown in other countries, including the U.S. It opens on a can of Coke, next to which is the "equal" sign and the words "139 Happy Calories" and goes on to suggest ways to burn off those calories. (The U.S. version, seen below, uses 140 calories, instead of 139.)

Later the ad suggests that, "If today you don't feel like doing it," you could have a Coke Zero instead. It ends with the message, "Balance your lifestyle" and also warns in the small print, "Calories burnt may vary."

The controversy surrounds whether or not Coca-Cola made it clear that you need to do all of the activities listed -- and not just pick one of them -- in order to burn off 139 calories. Ten members of the public complained because they didn't think that the individual activities would be enough.

A Coca-Cola Great Britain spokeswoman pointed out that only 10 people had complained and said in a statement, "Raising awareness of energy balance is part of our global commitment to help tackle obesity and we will continue to use our advertising to address it… Given the growing problem of obesity, we believe it is important for more people to understand this information."

In its response to the ASA, Coke said that by using the universally recognized "+" and "=" symbols, the spot clearly communicated that it was necessary to perform all the activities in order to negate the 139 calories.

The ASA, however, ruled that the "+" sign was not as prominent as the on-screen text describing the activities, and thought that some viewers might infer that the plus sign was purely decorative, with the result that it would not be clear to some viewers that it was the combination of all the activities that would burn off 139 calories.

Some viewers also complained that the "139 Calories of Happiness" commercial implied a general health claim, which does not comply with the codes, but the ASA disagreed, saying that Coca-Cola showed the importance of active, healthy living and informed choices, and that it was helping to raise awareness of the calorie content of its drinks.

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