Is That the Marlboro Man in Coke's 'It's Beautiful' Ad?

The company's feel-good Super Bowl effort masks something not so pretty.

Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

I’ll admit it: I got choked up the first time I saw Coke’s now famous (and in some conservative quarters, infamous) “America the Beautiful” ad. And I choked up the second time I saw it, and the third. As if that weren’t enough, I stumbled on Coke’s “behind-the-scenes” YouTube video on the making of the commercial, which features some of the adorable little girls—all Americans, mind you—who sang the song in eight languages: English, Spanish, Keres, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese, French, and Hebrew.

Despite the outraged reaction from some quarters (e.g., tweets like “Never buying Coke again. America the Beautiful in a language other than English is just wrong” and the hashtag #BoycottCoke), the company has scored a pretty major PR coup with the ad. Not only was it one of the most talked-about ads that aired during the Super Bowl, but Coke also played a longer 90-second version (just to tweak the nose of the haters) during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, of which Coke is a major sponsor. The original, one-minute version is pushing 11 million views on YouTube.

It’s easy—breathtakingly easy—to get caught up in the heady mix of tearjerk sentimentality and rousing sense of patriotism that mingle brilliantly in the spot—a reminder of just how successful the company has been over the course of its 122-year history at weaving itself into the fabric of our national identity. Think about all those ghostly old Coke ads now fading on the sides of brick buildings along Main Streets from Maine to Oregon, and it’s like you’re tapping into something quintessentially American.

But wait—check out the 90-second version again. There, at about the 30-second mark…do you see what I see? Is Coke betraying an almost subliminal acknowledgment of what the future may hold for the company? It’s that cowboy on his horse, ambling through a Western pine forest, then emerging onto a rolling alpine meadow with white-capped mountains in the distance just as the singer hits “for spacious skies.”

You know what I thought of the first time I saw that? The Marlboro Man.

What a coincidence, then, that Eric Lawson, who portrayed Marlboro’s epitome of rugged American individualism, free to enjoy his nicotine fix on the boundless High Plains, died about a month ago from complications related to smoking.

Having produced a commercial that, on its surface, only a bunch of bigots could hate, Coke is now basking in the glow of what is no doubt near universal public approval (seriously, the company could hardly have created a more critic-proof ad had it featured puppies on the laps of wounded war veterans). And it’s been quick to rebut whatever deranged, not-so-subtly racist criticism it has garnered, and to align itself with America's most exceptional national self.

“Our ad provides a snapshot of the real lives of Americans representing diverse ethnicities, religions, races and families, all found in the United States,” Katie Bayne, president of North American brands for Coke, says in a statement. “We believe [the ad] is a great example of the magic that makes our country so special, and a powerful message that spreads optimism, promotes inclusion and celebrates humanity—values that are core to Coca-Cola.”

But just as a generation ago cigarette makers sought to divert the American public’s attention from the growing body of scientific evidence linking smoking to cancer and other diseases by associating their products with nebulously patriotic concepts such as “freedom” and “individuality,” now we have Coke evoking “optimism” and “inclusion.”

So here's some news about Coke and its competitors that you may have missed amid all the discussion of Coke’s blockbuster commercial—news that further suggests soda is following a public health trajectory eerily similar to cigarettes'. California lawmakers are considering a first-in-the-nation bill that would require health labels on sodas, according to the Los Angeles Times. Yep, similar to those that started appearing on packs of smokes way back when. The soda label would read: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

And a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health finds that state and local taxes on soft drinks aren’t the “job killers” the soda industry would have us believe, according to the website Governing. While such soda taxes have been widely rejected by the public, owing in large part to the lobbying efforts of the soda industry, researchers found that the industry’s glomming on to the conservative argument-against-everything du jour—“it will destroy jobs!”—is more than a bit disingenuous. Yes, a reduction in soda consumption would lead to an inevitable reduction in jobs in the soda industry, but not in the economy as a whole. Just because people buy less soda doesn’t mean they won't go ahead and spend that money on something else.

Surely as the nation has drastically reduced smoking, the tobacco industry has suffered job losses as well (or not, given that it now hawks its products aggressively overseas). Nevertheless, few would argue we should encourage more smoking just to increase the number of jobs available at cigarette factories.

But those little girls singing “America the Beautiful”…the faded Coke signs on Main Street…c’mon, soda isn’t anywhere near as unhealthy as cigarettes, right? Oh my, where to begin? Let's just say that the American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of added sugar in your diet to 5–9 teaspoons per day because of sugar’s link to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. But the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day—the vast majority of that from soda.

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