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News Opinion Op-Eds

The dark side of Super Bowl ads

The Ravens and 49ers will be the main attractions for today's Super Bowl. But many of us will also eagerly take in the clever, witty, emotional or otherwise notable commercials on what is the biggest advertising day of the year.

And we can be sure that in between the on-field hits, our television screens will pummel us with commercials advertising unhealthy products.

Two of the most prominent Super Bowl advertisers are Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and both will be well represented this year. Both beverage makers developed iconic American brands thanks, in part, to memorable advertisements during Super Bowls.

It is too early to say whether this year's soda commercials will be funny or flops, remarkable or forgettable. But it is not too early to note a fundamental change in the context for these ads.

Experts now point to sugary drinks as the primary driver of obesity and the largest single source of excess calories in our children's diets, and parents are increasingly coming to appreciate the health implications of giving sweet drinks to their children.

Coke and Pepsi are also very much aware of this link. In fact, Coca-Cola recently launched a defensive ad series promoting its efforts to address the obesity problem. While these ads may mark a new strategy for the company, its commercials wrongly claim that "all calories count, no matter where they come from" — as if drinking a 150-calorie can of soda is the same thing as eating 150 calories of carrots and string beans. It is not.

Meanwhile, children's and teens' exposure to full-calorie soda ads on TV doubled between 2008 and 2010. Beverage companies are using more sophisticated and ubiquitous marketing tactics to reach youth, such as placing advertisements at schools, on social media, on mobile phones, in stores and through pop music icons.

Coke and Pepsi could market better beverages — they have hundreds of options — but they do not. In fact, they target unhealthy drinks especially to black and Hispanic youth, who are especially vulnerable to the health problems associated with obesity. The industry's primary concern is their bottom lines, not our kids' waistlines.

But they ignore the trends at their own peril. They should not let their story become like that of the big tobacco companies, which first fought the science about the risks of their products, fought regulation of those products, and then found themselves the subject of public scorn and declining domestic revenue that continues to this day.

Over the past few years, soda sales have been slightly declining in the U.S, and instead of marketing healthier beverage options, the industry is digging in its heels and pushing the same old junk.

But what if a community embraced the challenge of reversing the childhood obesity epidemic and tried to change the environment to make it just a little easier for parents? What if soda machines and advertising for sugary drinks (including energy, sports and juice drinks) were removed from all schools and replaced with machines full of healthier beverages? What if unlimited soda refills on children's menus at restaurants were replaced with healthier options? What if taking your kids to the store to get a gallon of milk became just a little bit easier by having a sugary-drink-free check-out line?

At The Horizon Foundation, we are trying to make this vision a reality in our community. We recently launched a campaign to fight childhood obesity, called Howard County Unsweetened. We are trying to change our community norms and empower parents to give our children better beverage options.

Beverage makers have an opportunity to help lead the way toward better health. If they spent half as much money advertising healthy drinks as they do high-calorie options, they could make an appreciable difference in our obesity problem while also solidifying their corporation's finances for the long term.

Now that's a refreshing idea.

Nikki Highsmith Vernick is president and CEO of The Horizon Foundation, based in Howard County.

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