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Will Coca-Cola’s Public Service Campaign to Address Obesity Help or Hinder the Obesity Fight?

January 16, 2013

Over two thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese and research has shown that drinking soda and other sugary drinks increases young people’s chances of becoming obese. In response, Coca-Cola has launched an ad campaign that promotes its efforts in fighting obesity. The two-minute commercial, called “Coming Together,” airs on national cable news and highlights Coca-Cola’s low- and no-calorie beverages. It also informs viewers that "all calories count no matter where they come from" and that "if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you'll gain weight." 

According to Coca –Cola, the company is reinforcing its efforts to work together with American communities, business and government leaders to find meaningful solutions to the complex challenge of obesity, but will this public service campaign actually make a difference?

In a study that evaluates the effects of public service announcements (PSAs) on health-related behaviors, Yale researchers found that these campaigns may increase the behaviors they are designed to discourage.  The study, published in the journal Tobacco Control, examines the effect of antismoking PSAs on smoking behavior immediately following exposure and has implications for all public service campaigns, potentially including Coca Cola's recent effort to address obesity.

Researchers randomly assigned participant smokers to watch a short television show with a commercial break that included either a Philip Morris ‘QuitAssist’ PSA; a Legacy ‘truth’ antismoking PSA; or a control PSA. Smoking behavior was then assessed during a short break.

Participants who saw the Philip Morris antismoking PSA were significantly more likely to smoke during a break (42%) compared with participants in the control condition (11%), and participants in the ‘truth’ condition were marginally more likely to smoke (33%).

These results suggest that almost any reminder of smoking, tobacco or cigarettes could automatically trigger an immediate desire to smoke among smokers despite their stated goal to reduce unhealthy consumption, assert the authors. While public health campaigns, such as “truth,” have been proven to be highly effective in reducing cigarette smoking in the long-term, antismoking campaigns funded by tobacco companies should be viewed with skepticism.

“If antismoking PSA’s cause smokers to smoke immediately after viewing, Coca-Cola’s anti-obesity campaign also has the potential to increase soda consumption among soda drinkers,” said lead author, Jennifer Harris, PhD.  “In addition, the similarities between Coca-Cola’s latest campaign and the tobacco industry’s antismoking campaigns are strikingly similar.  They both purportedly encourage consumers to reduce consumption of unhealthy products while at the same time the companies spend millions of dollars on marketing campaigns to encourage young people to consume more of the same product that they admit can damage their health. ”