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The online ad has people ride 23 minutes to earn their pop.
The online ad has people ride 23 minutes to earn their pop.

PERSUASION

Coke's attempt to address obesity may fall flat Add to ...

I’d like to teach the world to sing

In perfect harmony

I’d like to buy the world a Coke

While counting calories.

Of course those are not the lyrics of Coca-Cola’s most famous jingle, but they do sum up a new direction the beverage giant has begun to take with its marketing.

Coca-Cola Co. has just rolled out a new ad that specifies the calories contained in a can of its soda (140 – but there are significantly more in the larger bottles of pop that are sold in many machines and stores). It then estimates the amount of exercise needed to burn those calories (roughly 23 minutes on a bike for an adult who weighs 140 pounds) and encourages people to earn the treat with exercise.

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The ad shows people riding a large red stationary bike hooked up to a machine that spits out a can when they’ve reached the exercise target. The campaign is running online.

It’s a continuation of a marketing strategy started last year, the first time the company had addressed the issue of obesity in its marketing. A global campaign that began in January, 2013, promoted Coca-Cola’s low- and no-calorie products, and was a clear attempt to fend off criticisms over the detrimental health impacts of soda consumption, which has been declining.

The campaign essentially put the responsibility in consumers’ hands to balance their caloric intake by leading an active life.

Coke’s shift comes as concerns about obesity and its associated health problems are on the rise. According to Statistics Canada data gathered in 2013 and released on Thursday, 20.7 per cent of youths aged 12 to 17 are overweight or obese. And 41.9 per cent of adult men and 27.7 per cent of adult women in Canada are overweight.

“The video, Happy Cycle, is a continuation of a broader conversation we are having in communities around the world to inspire happier, healthier lives,” Coke said in an e-mailed statement. (The company declined interview requests for this story.) “This lighthearted video focuses on the very serious topic of energy balance in a way that attempts to engage consumers and spark conversations on the importance – and the fun – in balancing the calories you consume with those you expend.”

But Coke’s message skews the picture of realistic weight management, said Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert and professor in the department of medicine at the University of Ottawa.

In fact, the commonly held idea that a person has “earned” a treat, or the right to consume more calories because of exercise, is counterproductive.

“It really isn’t a fair fight,” Dr. Freedhoff said. “If we burned sufficient calories running around to burn off what we ate, we wouldn’t be here. We have bodies that are extremely fuel efficient.”

Just maintaining one’s current weight requires an hour of exercise per day; more than many people can realistically manage, he explained. While on paper it is true that exercise burns calories, it’s not as simple as basic arithmetic. Exercise is required for the food we already eat for sustenance, and it would be difficult for anyone to do enough to account for the unnecessary calories added on to our diet with unhealthy snacks and drinks.

“If they can convince the public that they are trying to help by providing all this useful information about the importance of energy balance, it obfuscates the fact that it is a lot easier not to drink a Coca-Cola than to get on a bike for 23 minutes,” Dr. Freedhoff said. “… It’s a very sophisticated message, a very smart one.”

The ad begins with archival shots of people enjoying Coke and old advertisements from an era when a Coke cost 5 cents. It then presents the idea that a Coke could cost only 140 calories.

“They were harkening back to a time when drinking pop wasn’t such a serious affair,” said Nellie Kim, partner and co-creative director at lg2 Toronto, the newest extension of the Montreal ad agency that will open in July. “And then they use that to set up a lighthearted campaign. It used to not be a scary thing, and now it’s a scary thing to drink pop. … But 23 minutes on a bike is not that bad.”

Still, Ms. Kim said the strategy may not be a smart one.

“I don’t think it’s an effective strategy when it’s coming from this huge entity that is known for being bad for you,” Ms. Kim said. “They’re starting to tap into something that is much, much more layered than they’re willing to talk about. … The consumer will be able to see that, and you’ll be faced with a lot of criticism and cynicism.”

Food companies are addressing concerns as a response to consumers putting pressure on brands, said Jason Chaney, senior vice-president and head of strategic planning at ad agency Cossette. Mr. Chaney was at agency TribalDDB Toronto when they developed the Our Food, Your Questions campaign for McDonalds, which promised to answer any question – no matter how critical – that consumers submitted.

“What was great about the McDonalds campaign was that it was full of vulnerability. With that vulnerability, it’s hard to dislike the brand,” he said. “This spot has almost a circus feel to it. I’m not sure that’s the right choice.”

In Mr. Chaney’s view, the campaign also lacks a human touch that has characterized so much of Coke’s marketing in the past.

For example, Coke’s “small world machine” – another part of the “where will happiness strike next” campaign that this new ad also falls under – installed two Coke machines with big screens on the front, one in India and one in Pakistan. The two machines were connected; when people in both countries approached, they were encouraged to touch hands in the same place on the screen, and do other actions such as dancing for each other, tracing a circle on the screen together or waving. When they did so, the machine gave out free drinks to each and encouraged them to share a Coke.

This campaign feels disconnected, Mr. Chaney said. “They would have been better served to play into the more human side of exercise and the benefits,” he said.

Dr. Freedhoff believes that the message is smart advertising, but disagrees that marketers can be part of the conversation around health. He believes the obesity crisis needs to be addressed through legislation.

“They shouldn’t address health. That is not their job,” he said. “… If we are waiting for the food industry to step up and do the right thing and lend a hand, we are kidding ourselves.”

Follow on Twitter: @susinsky

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