A nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network generated controversy in 2015 when it claimed that a lack of exercise—and not diet—is the primary cause of obesity. GEBN had been founded in 2014 and received $1.5 million in donations from Coca-Cola. Critics argued GEBN was simply pushing an agenda that benefitted a donor that sells sugary soft drinks. GEBN announced in November 2015 that it was disbanding.
Shortly before the group disbanded, Forbes magazine published emails between top officials from GEBN and Coca-Cola discussing how the research can be presented in a way to benefit Coca-Cola's brand and image. Coca-Cola's chief health and science officer, who took part in the publicized email exchanges, retired shortly before GEBN disbanded, and Coca-Cola did not immediately refill the position.
In the years preceding the creation of GEBN, Coca-Cola had been criticized for a 2013 advertising campaign that touted the company's efforts to fight obesity by offering low- and no-calorie options to schools.
Most independent research argues that obesity is complex and not caused by any single factor. Among the main influences are genetics, diet, and level of exercise. Nearly 40 percent of adults in the U.S. are obese, according to a 2016 study (the most recent available as of February 6, 2019) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 18.5 percent of children are considered to be obese, according to the study. Obesity is defined as being "at or above the 95th percentile of the CDC sex-specific Body Mass Index-for-age growth charts."
The main source of criticism for Coca-Cola's marketing and its association with GEBN was the oversimplification of obesity as a topic. GEBN's research and Coca-Cola's previous advertising campaign suggested that exercise alone was enough to combat obesity and that diet was not a significant factor. No independent research proves such claims to be true.
The amount of bottled water purchased in the U.S. surpassed the volume of soft drinks purchased in the U.S. in 2016. Americans drank about 39 gallons of bottled water per person that year, compared to about 38.5 gallons of soft drinks per person, according to data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation. BMC reported that the volume of soft drinks being purchased had dropped from more than 50 gallons per American nearly 20 years prior.
This trend of drinking less soda and more water also was an influence in Coca-Cola's marketing efforts and its desire to portray its products in a healthier light.
Additionally, Coca-Cola and other soft drink manufacturers were facing a public relations problem in New York, where then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg was pushing a regulation that would cap the sizes of fountain soft drinks sold in the city at 16 ounces. The regulation was approved in September 2012, but it never took effect because of ensuing legal challenges, and the New York Court of Appeals struck down the regulation in 2014.
Though Coca-Cola and other soft drink companies had won the legal battle, the public relations damage had been done. Sugary soft drinks clearly were viewed by many as a public health threat in need of regulation.
In the years since the GEBN controversy, Coca-Cola has shifted the focus of its advertising away from making any sort of health claims. Instead, the company has revamped classic ads and slogans such as the "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" jingle and "Have a Coke and a Smile."
For the 2018 and 2019 Super Bowls, Coca-Cola shifted its advertising focus to inclusion and diversity. The 2018 ad portrayed many people of different backgrounds throughout the world enjoying experiences while drinking a Coke. For the 2019 Super Bowl, Coca-Cola announced that it would not buy time during the game, but that it intended to run an ad before the national anthem. In a statement more than a week before the game, the company again emphasized inclusion and diversity by saying it wants to air its ad as "Americans come together in their living rooms to remind everyone that together is beautiful."