01/16/2013 03:04 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

Coke's Ad on Obesity Is Brilliant -- Where's the Well-Funded, National, Anti-Soda Counter-Marketing Campaign?

Coca-Cola, battered by research that shows its sugary drinks are heavily related to our nation's epidemic of obesity and besieged by the introduction/passage of sugary drink taxes and portion caps, is fighting back. They just unveiled a new commercial in which they attempt to convince Americans that they are offering "solutions" to the obesity epidemic with their diet drink portfolio, charitable contributions to fitness programs and by helpfully pointing out that if you take in more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. It's a brilliant marketing strategy.

So where is the well-funded, national anti-soda counter-marketing campaign that will set Americans straight? It doesn't exist, because public health advocates can't afford that kind of campaign and must make do with fragmented local marketing messages and YouTube videos. Isn't it time for obesity-prevention public health funders to pool their money and fund one anti-soda/anti-junk food marketing campaign nationally?

One of the reasons we have an obesity epidemic in this country is because Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other purveyors of junk food have been allowed to flood our airwaves and almost every other aspect of our lives with a steady drumbeat of feel-good, misleading marketing. These companies spend billions of dollars promoting unhealthy, non-nutritious products on TV, radio, in print, on mobile devices, on the Internet, on clothing, at concerts, in schools, at sporting events, on giveaways and in countless other venues. And because Coca-Cola and other soft drink companies can afford to saturate the marketplace with their messages and use the top ad/marketing agencies to create their campaigns, they tend to be brilliant -- tapping into human emotions and successfully associating their sugary drinks with happiness, fulfillment and having fun. Big Soda spends big dollars on these types of campaigns, because they work.

Please don't feed me Big Soda's defensive nonsense about how kids and adults must take "personal responsibility" for what they ingest. In a world saturated by professionally-designed, emotional marketing messages that implore people to drink soda and other sugary drinks 24/7, can we really blame people, particularly kids and teens, for overconsumption? Coke and others have expertly positioned their beverages as benign, happy drinks. Coke's new "obesity" ad campaign is yet another example of their marketing brilliance and ability to manipulate messages and the public.

So where does Coca-Cola's new obesity campaign leave public health advocates? Playing catch-up, as always. The ridiculously-underfunded yet scrappy public health community has made impressive dents in Big Soda's armor. On the marketing front, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and advertising guru Alex Bogusky produced a brilliant anti-soda video, "The Real Bears," that has more than 2 million views. But there's no funding available to turn "The Real Bears" into a traditional national advertising campaign where you'd see a version on TV, in print and splashed all over the Internet, and on mobile devices, like the soda companies can afford to do. The introduction of soda taxes and sugary drink portion caps across the country and the resulting press coverage has created a new level of awareness among the general public. But without proper funding to counter the tens of millions of dollars that Big Soda has spent on advertising campaigns to kill these measures (only NYC's portion cap has passed), advocates continue to be at a huge disadvantage.

Obesity prevention funders can continue to fund dozens of small local or regional anti-soda/anti-junk food campaigns that will have limited impact. Or, they can try something different -- like banding together and funding one brilliant national counter-marketing campaign.

As long as the public health world is forced to operate in a piecemeal fashion with limited funding, progress in lowering consumption of sugary drinks will be slow. And more Americans will get sick and die.

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