Widely considered one of the most popular ads ever created, the Coca-Cola company’s “Hilltop” commercial first aired in 1971, and surfaced again recently as part of AMC’s Mad Men series finale. The famous minute-long spot opens with a blonde, blue-eyed all-American girl singing, “I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love,” before panning out to reveal a diverse cast of characters from all over the world ready to join each other in song.
The key line in this display of world peace and togetherness being, of course: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.”
Well, that was then. This is now: With more than two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a scathing parody of that ad today—starring a somber cast of doctors and hospital patients who would “like to buy the world a drink that doesn’t cause disease.”
CSPI, a non-profit health advocacy group, has a simple point to get across in their new short film: Drink less soda. Sugary drinks are the single largest source of calories in the diets of American teens, and countless studies have linked soda and other sweet drinks to major health problems like obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“For the past 45 years, Coca-Cola and other makers of sugar drinks have used the most sophisticated and manipulative advertising techniques to convince children and adults alike that a disease-promoting drink will make them feel warm and fuzzy inside,” CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said in a press release about the video. “It’s a multi-billion-dollar brainwashing campaign designed to distract us away from our diabetes with happy thoughts.”
The “Change the Tune” video, published on YouTube, features Denver-area physicians and real people suffering from ailments including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and tooth decay. The camera captures one patient injecting himself with insulin, and another (a young adult) putting in dentures.
It’s a dramatic portrayal of what excess sugar can do to a person’s health: “If not for drinking soda pop,” the group sings, “my liver might not be enlarged, might have a few more teeth.” But is it over the top?
Not according to Rafael Perez-Escamilla, PhD, professor of epidemiology and public health at the Yale School of Public Health. “The ad is completely appropriate,” he says, “and I can tell you that every single statement it makes is scientifically correct and not at all exaggerated.”
Perez-Escamilla recently served on the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which recommended for the first time that people limit the amount of added sugar in their diets to no more than 10% of their daily calories.
That’s about 12 teaspoons a day, total. The panel noted that Americans currently consume 22 to 30 teaspoons total, half of which comes from soda and other sugary drinks. (A 12-ounce can of non-diet cola contains about 10 teaspoons.) It also recommended that sugary drinks be banned from schools, and backed a proposed change by the FDA that “added sugar” be included on food labels.
Of course, an occasional sugary drink won’t cause these ailments, at least not by itself. Perez-Escamilla says to think of soda as liquid candy: “It’s something that should be consumed sporadically and in small amounts, and there’s absolutely no need for it in your diet,” he says. “I would recommend that people try not to drink it regularly, not even on a weekly basis.”
Even if you exercise regularly and have room for the calories in your diet, he says, soda is bad for you in other ways besides just weight gain. CSPI’s ad touches on tooth decay, but oral health is just one example, says Perez-Escamilla. “It’s not as simple as brushing your teeth more—you’re also consuming the sugar into your body, and that affects many different organs.”
Diet soda, which is sweetened with artificial sweetener instead of sugar (and which has been associated with its own list of health issues) was not addressed in the video or the accompanying press release.
CSPI hopes that the video will help spread its message to people of all ages across the country.
“I think it’s very clever, because CSPI doesn’t have the hundreds of millions of dollars that soda companies have to pay for advertising,” says Perez-Escamilla. “This is a good way to turn the tables on them, and hopefully let as many people as possible see what is likely to happen if you drink enough sugary drinks.”
Health reached out to Coca-Cola for comment, but has not yet received a response.
UPDATE (June 24, 2015): “Our industry is committed to being part of real solutions to public health challenges like obesity,” The American Beverage Association, a trade association representing the non-alcoholic beverage industry, including Coca-Cola, said in a response provided to Health. “We’ve put clear calorie information on all of our cans, bottles and packs, and are doing so on company-controlled equipment including vending machines and fountains, so consumers know exactly how many calories are in a beverage before they make a purchase. These are meaningful efforts that will have real and lasting impact.”