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Coke's new anti-obesity ad is a soda-maker first

The TODAY anchors, joined by rapper 50 Cent, chat about the topics making headlines today, including a new ad campaign by Coca-Cola that calls obesity "the issue of a generation," which has some critics protesting.

For the first time ever, a big soda company is launching a campaign to combat obesity. The Coca-Cola Co., fighting back on how the sweet calories in sugary sodas have become a health policy and obesity bogeyman lately, kicks off its initiative with a new epic two-minute ad called "Coming Together." It's live online and begins airing tonight on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. The spots underline how getting fat comes from consuming excessive calories from any number of sources, and that sodas aren't the only source of weight-increasing calories.

The ad is a montage of video clips like children exercising, scientists testing plants, and a rapid-fire series of a multiethnic smiling faces. While these images play, a female voiceover intones: "Beating obesity will take action by all of us, based on one simple common sense fact: All calories count. No matter where they come from. Including Coca-Cola and everything else with calories. And if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you'll gain weight."

Coca-Cola Co. spokesperson Diana Garza Ciarlante told TODAY the campaign's "purpose is to highlight some of the specifics behind the company’s ongoing commitment to deliver a greater choice of beverages, including low and no-calories options, and to clearly communicate the calorie content of all its products."

"We call it 'Coming Together' because it informs Americans about all the company has been doing to bring folks together and deliver more choice and calorie transparency," Coca-Cola Co. spokesperson Ben Sheidler told TODAY. "In it we acknowledge that obesity is the issue of this generation and that we want to step into the national discourse to help identify ways to address the problem with willing partners."

Coca-Cola wasn't able to provide details yet about what other forms the campaign will take. "What I can tell you is that we've never been more committed to doing our part to help address the issue of obesity, and 2013 is going to be a landmark year in terms of expanding partnerships and efforts to educate consumers about energy balance," said Sheidler.

The tide is turning against the 45 gallon sea of soda the average American drinks annually. A New York City ban against the sale of sodas over 16 oz. goes into effect in June. Support for the measure came from arguments that excessive soda consumption contributes to obesity. The mayor of Cambridge, Mass., is considering a similar measure. The New York City Health Department has also run public service announcements asking viewers whether they're "pouring on the pounds" and showing glasses of human fat gushing from a soda can into a glass. The department ran ads on the New York City subway pointing out how you would have to walk three miles from Union Square in Manhattan to Brooklyn to burn off the calories in one 20 oz. soda.

Samantha Levine, New York City Office of the Mayor deputy press secretary, told TODAY, "New York City’s bold action to combat the obesity epidemic is already making a difference and it’s clear the industry is taking notice. But the fact remains that sugary drinks -- which play a unique role in this epidemic and have zero nutritional value -- are the single largest driver of the increase in obesity."

The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily added sugar intake to 37.5 grams, noting it as a contributing factor for obesity. A 20 oz. bottle of Coke contains 65g of sugar.

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention place American obesity levels at 35.7 percent, up from 13 percent in 1962.

Despite the sugary brown drink backlash, and the fact that soda has no nutritional value, a July 23, 2012, Gallup poll found that the self-reported weights of Americans was essentially the same between those who drank two or more glasses of soda per day and those who drank none.

RELATED: Coca-Cola’s new anti-obesity ad: Help or hurt Latinos?

In late 2012, the health activist group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sponsored a viral video called "The Real Bears," using spoof characters modeled after the iconic Coca-Cola polar bears, which shared an array of frightening soda-related facts. The video's capper was one of the soda-swilling polar bears getting diabetes and having its foot amputated. It got over 2 million YouTube views.

In response to the new Coca-Cola campaign, CSPI head Michael Jacobson told TODAY that the "industry is under unprecedented pressure from academics, schools and parents. They're trying to stem the tide of criticism by taking a page out of crisis control 101, which is to pretend like they're concerned about the issue. If they were serious, they would stop advertising full-calorie drinks, charge less for lower calorie options, and stop fighting the soda tax. They're just running feel-good ads aimed at neutralizing criticism."

The final decision is up to the American consumer whether they're going to open up their pocketbooks — and mouths. Will they swallow what Coke is selling? And do ads like these really work? Alex Bogusky, co-founder of advertising firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky, who collaborated with the CSPI on "The Real Bears" video, told TODAY: "Yeah they work. People are anxious to hear they can still drink soda like water, so the message falls on many receptive ears."

Asked to respond to the remarks made by the CSPI and Bogusky, Coca-Cola Co. spokesperson Ciarlante said, "Big challenges like obesity aren’t going to be solved without honest and collective action. This includes action by business, government, teachers, scientists, health professionals, parents and, of course, companies like The Coca-Cola Company. We have an important role in this fight which can only be won if everyone works together."

In a new ad airing Monday night, Coca-Cola is touting its low-calorie beverage options and small product sizes while also encouraging consumers to look at all of the calories they consume – not just the calories in soft drinks. NBC's Chris Jansing reports.