Did Coke Really Have to Tell Us It Makes Us Fat?

Tuning In: Coca-Cola Should Borrow From McDonald's and Not Flip On Branding

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Ads for Coke have long reminded consumers of how well the company's popular can of fizzy brown sugar water go with summer picnics, homecomings, football games and other moments of fun. But they never suggested that drinking Coke adds pounds, plays a role in the development of morbid obesity and sends a consumer on a hard-to-reverse road toward poor health. The journey from "Have a Coke and a smile" to "Have too much Coke and get diabetes" has always been a long one.

Watch out, Mean Joe Greene!
Watch out, Mean Joe Greene!

Until now. A new initiative from the Atlanta beverage giant seeks to address the nation's ever-growing concerns about the weight of the American consumer, and the charge that makers of sugary potables such as Coke, Fanta and Sprite have some responsibility to help stem the tide. In one two-minute ad largely shown on cable outlets and another half-minute spot that has run on "American Idol" and is set to air in pre-game Super Bowl coverage, Coca-Cola takes the issue head on -- and, I'd argue, undermines its valuable brand positioning in the process.

Ad Age contributor Jonathan Salem Baskin argued the ads didn't go far enough. I'd argue that they go too far in the wrong direction. If Coke makes us fat, then why would anyone want to gather on a hilltop and sing its praises, as the company's famous "Hilltop" commercial suggested in 1971? Why would athlete Mean Joe Greene be caught downing it in the company's famous 1979 commercial?

Consider the two-minute spot, which tells viewers that "all calories count, no matter where they come from -- including Coca-Cola and everything else with calories." The 30-second spot is even more puzzling, telling viewers all the different things they could do to burn off the "140 happy calories" included in a can of Coke, while a sing-song voice lilts, "I just want to be OK.. be OK... be OK." If the calories are so happy, why on Earth would we want to get rid of them? And what's with the song lyrics -- are we to infer that we are "not OK" unless we burn off the Coke calories? If so, why drink Coke in the first place?

To be sure, this is a subject Coca-Cola needs to address. After years of rising obesity-related disease, American consumers finally seem to have developed a real craving for eating well and healthily. Big Food has been limited in its ability to market sugary and salty stuff directly to kids. The rise of everything from labels detailing fiber and whole grain to Tropicana juices with names like "Healthy Kids" -- and the recent well-covered demise of the Twinkies-associated Hostess brand -- suggests the average person is looking for healthier stuff and will spend more money on it than in the past.

While critics may think Coca-Cola ads are among the things at the root of this nation's weight problems, however, and although they certainly spark a desire to drink Coke, they don't force the stuff down your gullet. As the two-minute ad details, Coca-Cola has distributed smaller sizes of its drinks, devised more low- and no-calorie products and posted the number of calories in each product on its packaging. Does it now have to hold our hand when we go to the Piggly Wiggly or Shop-Rite?

There are better ways for Coca-Cola to get the job done. McDonald's has never put out an ad sounding anything like Coke's two recent commercials. The fast-food chain has over the years added salads, fruit parfaits and coffee to its menu, and in the process broadened the association consumers have with the Golden Arches beyond the Big Mac and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. But it has never out-and-out linked its brand with being overweight, despite the Morgan Spurlock film "Super Size Me" and countless outcries about what Mickey D's cuisine does to the American diet.

In 2003, Coca-Cola Co. tested a similar notion with a series of print ads developed by WPP's Berlin Cameron/Red Cell that appeared in USA Today, The New York Times, Roll Call and The Hill as well as on outdoor billboards. The ads showed a picture of everything from Sprite ReMix and Coke Classic to Minute Maid Lemonade and Odwalla carrot juice, marking the first time in the company's history that it launched an ad effort representing its entire portfolio of beverages, from sodas to teas to juices.

If only Coke could do more of that sort of thing -- broadening the perception of what it offers while feeling free to market its soda in a responsible fashion.

The trouble, I suspect, is that the company's image is too closely affiliated with that of its flagship drink. As Coca-Cola goes, so too goes the company that produces it. With the new interest in eating healthful, however, soda sales are not what they were in the "Hilltop" days. And Coke probably needs to do more than it has in the past to drive volume of such products as Dasani, Honest Tea and Gold Peak.

Coca-Cola might simply need to, um, refresh. The parent corporation will have to acknowledge its flagship brand is merely one product among dozens. "Always Coca-Cola" doesn't fly in 2013. Maybe an entity known as something more like "The Beverage Co." or "Liquid Inc." wouldn't be as prone to the sort of ham-fisted maneuvers we've seen in the past week.

Coke's new commercials certainly answer criticism, and take the steps necessary to demonstrate how the company is playing a role in keeping the nation on a better diet. If Coke keeps them up, however, they could do more to damage its image than burnish it. There has to be a better way to sell soda.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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