Monday, February 3, 2014

I'm Angry About the Coke Superbowl Commercial, But Not for the Reason You'd Think

Superbowl happened yesterday.  I went to a party, but didn't really watch it (as is usual for me).  I sat in the kitchen, gossiped with my in-laws and stuffed my face.  I read a good chunk of The Golem and the Jinni on my Kindle, made some commentary about the halftime show, and watched a couple of the commercials.

One commercial in particular raised a lot of discussion around the country.  You probably saw it.  If not, here's what you missed:

It's heartwarming: A multi-lingual rendition of "America the Beautiful" transposed over images of American families of several races, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations.  It's a powerful image, and a beautiful version of the song, and a lot of people started complaining about it instantly.

Maybe your Twitter feed lit up with racist comments. Maybe the people you watched it with looked at each other uncomfortably and said, "That sure was different." Or maybe you didn't give it a second thought.

But me, it made me uncomfortable.  Not because of the message of celebrating American diversity.  That part is great.  We are a culture of immigrants, a nation built uniquely on the promise of new beginnings and opportunities.  Anybody who takes issue with celebrating our diversity is a fucking idiot.

No, what made me uncomfortable is that, beneath all of its inclusivity, the real rhetoric of the commercial is this:  "We're all people united by a thread of consumerism.  Drink Coke." 

And seeing that message -- "Drink Coke!" -- plastered around the faces of ethnic minorities rubs me the wrong way because Coca-Cola is a business empire that has repeatedly drawn its strength from exploiting workers and citizens of developing countries.

Coca-Cola's Invasion of the Developing World

Mexico is the biggest Coke-consumer in the world.  In Mexico, it's easier to buy a Coke than it is to get access to clean, safe drinking water.  Mexicans are spending $14.3 billion on Coke every year and diabetes is the biggest disease in the country and a leading cause of death.  (for reference: Americans only spend about $2.9 billion on Coke -- and we're obviously a much richer country).  They're also the most obese nation on the planet -- fatter even than the United States.  In Mexico, there are little children literally dying of obesity while at the same time suffering from malnutrition.

But Coca-Cola isn't satisfied.  See, it can't sell more Coke to the countries where the market is already saturated.  Even when we're drinking more soda than anything else, we can still only drink so much.  Even when we're pouring Coke into our baby's bottles, we're not drinking enough to satisfy Coke's bottom line.  So it's expanding out, and finding more people to preach its sugary message to -- like the folks in Kenya, India and China.

Like missionaries of old, Coca-Cola representatives are plowing their way into the developing world and spreading their Manifest Destiny caffeinated beverages far and wide. 

But what's wrong with that, you ask?  What's so bad about a brand selling its product to people in another country?  It's not like anybody's holding a gun to their heads and saying, "Drink Coke or die," or anything, right?

Tell that to the India Resource Center, who's seeing first-hand how Coca-Cola is devastating its country.  Coca-Cola is pulling so much water from the ground to make its product that it's literally creating a water shortage for the people living there  This isn't just a problem for drinking -- it's also devastating the agricultural economy there.  Oh, yeah, and Coca-Cola is pumping its waste into the rivers and fields, poisoning whatever groundwater there was left.

Oh yeah.  And let's not forget the way that Coca-Cola factory employees in Colombia, Guatemala and other nations are literally being kidnapped, tortured and killed for attempting to unionize.  And even right here at home, Coca-Cola is widely known as one of the most racially discriminating employers in the country: In the year 2000 alone, Coke was sued two thousand times for racial disparities in pay and promotions against African Americans. 

My Anger Has Nothing to Do With Language

I can keep going.  I can sit here all day and tell you more about how evil Coca-Cola is.  None of these evils make it unique in the corporate world, unfortunately.  Its behavior is actually pretty par for the course.

But when I see a company whose business model is literally based on invading foreign markets, getting an impoverished and hungry population of young people addicted to an unhealthy product, and systematically destroying that country's infrastructure along the way -- I don't see something to celebrate. 

So before you think, "This commercial is so great!  Coca-Cola really values diversity!  They really care about people!" Realize that you have been taken in by a carefully executed marketing ploy.  Because the truth is that Coca-Cola doesn't give a shit about diversity any more than any other corporation on the planet.  Coca-Cola cares about its bottom line, and it will do absolutely anything to grow that number -- even convincing a bunch of us sentimental Americans that they value exactly what we do. 

1 comment:

  1. I'll be the first to admit that big corporations such as Coke has ethical standards that are quite below what we would consider acceptable, but that doesn't change the fact that Coke is still my favorite drink.

    Just my two cents about this issue.