Coca Cola – Warm & Fuzzies or Pins & Needles?

Coca-Cola

Think for a moment of a Coca Cola ad – I doubt there’s a reader out there that can’t do this; snuggling polar bears, soccer goals, popping red bottles, or people uniting are some themes that may come to mind. Some examples are on their YouTube channel. While the marketing team are coming up with inspiration creatives, what’s going on in the real world? The post challenges Coca-Cola’s marketing authenticitydoes Coca-Cola really value and advocate for the betterment of society or are they masquerading while they pillage the modern world?

Just before visiting India in May of 2013 I saw this Coca Cola ad dubbed Small World Machines. My warm fuzzies were {literally} out of control. Shareen Pathak sums up it’s success in Ad Age, “Coke has hit on a good formula for creating heartwarming online clips celebrating, basically, the kindness of strangers” (Pathak, 2013). Take a look and experience this warming moment…

I showed this ad to various people I met in India – thinking I was bringing a message of peace and positivity. I was rather surprised to realize that of the 10 or so people I showed (including a friend, a couple tour guides, shuttle driver, hotel concierge…) two of them outwardly liked the message, others were amused and then 3 didn’t even finish the ad! It was the ambivalent and seemingly offended responses that got me thinking. I ended up asking my favorite tour guide, a fantastic scholar: why aren’t these guys jumping up and down like me!? He kindly reminded me that most Indians and Pakistanis have negative feelings towards one another, and that this ad might be so far as to say it’s offensive (keep in mind though, he liked the ad). Confirming his point, a 2013 BBC report indicates that 54% of Pakistani’s have negative feelings towards Indians and 45% of Indian’s hold negative feelings towards Pakistan (BBC, 2013). My tour guide said that the ad oversimplifies and belittles the deep rooted conflicts between the countries… and after I heard him say that, I began to realize, I think I agree. After all, how do you think the american population would react if we had Small World Machines connecting the U.S. with Iran?

CocaColaIndia

In addition, my guide pointed out that there are several plants in India that cause water shortages in the local villages in which they are placed. Turns out there are 58 plants in India, with one likely to shut down in a few days in Varnasi (a sacred place along the Gangis River) because of it’s impact on the local water supply. (AAP, 2013)

As if this isn’t enough discouragement, Coca-Cola recently stated that they believe global warming is bad for business (Davenport, 2014)… I don’t know about you, but shouldn’t this be reversed??

This ad still gives me the chills, but I can’t decide if the feeling I got was warm & fuzzy or pins & needles. As the people lover and aspirational thinker, I still love it; writing this post, I still get goosebumps over it’s message. But as a marketer I thought about how it impacts other people. Who is the target audience for this ad? Is it for the Americans like me who want to believe peace really can be as simple as opening a Coca-Cola can? Or is it the people of India and Pakistan who have been in violent territorial and political disputes since 1947? Or the people of India who can’t drink water because it’s too expensive, so now have to buy Coke? Who?

This ad won 6 Lion Awards one month after it’s release (PR Newswire, 2013) and in 2013 Joe Tripodi accepted Coca-Cola’s first Cannes Creative Marketer of the year award, one of the highest esteemed awards in marketing. “The legacy we want to leave is of a brand and company that does good things for the world and speaks to optimism, positivity and happiness.” (Moye, 2013). While I believe this is the legacy they want, I wonder if the legacy will instead be nothing more than their revolutionary creative ideas that mask the the reality of their global destruction…

Resources

AAP. (25 January 2014). India threatens to demolish Coke plant. MSN NZ. Retrieved from http://money.msn.co.nz/businessnews/world/8789022/india-threatens-to-demolish-coke-plant

BBC World Service. (22 May 2013). Views of China and India slide while UK’s rating climg: Global poll. Retrieved from http://www.globescan.com/images/images/pressreleases/bbc2013_country_ratings/2013_country_rating_poll_bbc_globescan.pdf

Davenport, C. (23 January 2014). Industry awakens to threat of climate change. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/science/earth/threat-to-bottom-line-spurs-action-on-climate.html?hpw&rref=us&_r=0

Moye, J. (25 June 2013). Work that matters: Coca-Cola named creative marketer of the year, wins 20 additional Cannes Lions. Coca-Cola Company. Retrieved from http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/work-that-matters-coca-cola-named-creative-marketer-of-the-year-wins-20-additional-cannes-lions

PR Newswire. (18 June 2013). Leo Burnett Worldwide wins 18 Cannes Lions in media and outdoor. Retrieved from http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/leo-burnett-worldwide-wins-18-cannes-lions-in-media-and-outdoor-212069521.html

Shareen, P. (10 June 2013). See our favorite work from Coke, Cannes 2013 creative marketer of the year. Advertising Age. Retrieved from http://adage.com/article/special-report-cannes-2013/favorite-work-coke-cannes-2013-creative-marketer-year/242013/

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7 Responses to Coca Cola – Warm & Fuzzies or Pins & Needles?

  1. Kara Seward says:

    Ashley,
    I love that you have first hand reactions to this commercial from its target audience. Your post’s conjecture on the overall response to the ad reminds me of an important lesson learned in the global marketing class. When creating campaigns for international and global audiences, local sensitivities must be respected. The divide is cultural, religious and political that cannot be easily conquered by a Coke vending machine (if only world peace were that simple). There will be different responses, as you experienced firsthand, but in the end, it’s a product marketing campaign not a diplomatic endeavor.
    Kara

  2. Caroline says:

    Ashley,

    You touch on some great points about Coke’s marketing efforts. On the surface the experiment to unite people in India and Pakistan can seem like a good one. When I first watched it I smiled as people from the two countries seemed to connect on a basic human level. But taking into account the perspective of your tour guide and the reaction by those you showed it to reminded me of the tension that in many areas still exists between African-Americans and whites in America. To gloss over the deep hurt and humiliation some African-Americans still genuinely feel toward the treatment of their family members during the 1960’s, up to even today, would probably cause even deeper pain since their original hurt had never been addressed or acknowledged.

    I think most people deeply desire world peace and unity amongst all people. But human emotions run deep and as we can see from looking at history old wounds can remain for decades or even generations. Coke’s attempt toward helping unite people might be considered a small step by some, and as you have shown, offensive to others. If their experiment were implemented on a larger scale, I wonder if they would actually cause more harm than good.

    I don’t think it is the place of corporations to venture into the realm of bringing peace to those who have disputes. This seems like dangerous territory that could easily backfire.

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.

    Caroline Miller

    • Ashley says:

      Hi Caroline,
      It appears we both experienced the same emotional arc. At first the idea touches our hearts, but then the reality confuses our heads. I think you make an excellent point that I left out, that this pain has not even been formally recognized! It’s like the disputes between China and Japan over Japan’s wartime crimes. In 2007 the Japanese prime minister affirmed that that Japan there’s insufficient evidence to prove they engaged in sex slavery (he didn’t deny it, just says there’s no evidence). Neighboring asian countries (primarily China) were fuming over the denial and tension still remains actually. Imagine if around the same time in 2007 Coca-Cola ran an ad between China and Japan – I don’t think people would have been thrilled. Or if it was sometime after 9/11 between the US and anywhere in the middle east. It would be really fascinating to see the situational analysis of Coca-Cola’s small world boxes. I wonder how they weighed the pros and cons in the case of India and Pakistan.
      I also think it’s interesting how you pointed out that you feel corporations shouldn’t get involved. I can see the value in what you say. I may disagree though – in that I do believe in using “celebrity” to bring attention to causes, but I think that this channel may not have been the most appropriate or productive approach. To be honest I’m not sure what I think about it. Either way – the ad romanticizes a difficult reality instead of surfacing awareness that would lead to solutions.
      Thanks for your excellent points!

  3. Sandra Colton says:

    Ashley,
    I believe in peace and I think that the ad no matter if it was meant to sell Coke or the idea that people can live in harmony by setting aside their differences, or is even offensive to those who might want to still harbor ill feelings toward one another, the idea is there, it is a chance for hope, it is a moment in time…

    For those who are offended by it, they may be offended by the American way of thinking all together, and yes, it probably does oversimplify a very complex situation…

    I believe that if a company can use a can of Coke to make someone’s life a little bit happier for a second in a mall, then make it happen. I understand the idea that it may not be enough, but everything starts with a spark. And people can change…sometimes people need a little hope in their lives. For me, the tension you mentioned in Iran and if there were a Coke machine there set up for Americans to draw peace signs with people in malls, I think people would do it just the same…not everyone is bad in an entire country, and not all Americans hate everyone in other countries…politics of war is a brutal subject, it’s just sad that resources, religion, culture and geography continue to separate us.
    -Sandra

    • Ashley says:

      Hi Sandra,
      I appreciate your response, and I’m glad to see that you passionately believe in hope and cultural shifts. I do agree with you, and like the others who responded we all have that inside us, which is indeed exactly what Coca Cola targets in on to create an ad as successful as this one. I also agree that using “celebrity” to spread a positive message is valuable because there are those that will listen and will be positively impacted by it.
      I think for me, the biggest struggle is the inconsistency of Coca-Cola’s advertising and their production actions. They paint a face that they care about international relations, but the backstory of their actions demonstrates that they don’t care at all. The report that Beth added gets into the details of how local governments struggle repeatedly with Coca-Cola’s poor business practices. If Coca Cola had better international business practices, I don’t think I would feel so strongly against this ad.
      You got me thinking though, if this was a stunt pulled by the United Nations or UNICEF (for examples), I think I would appreciate the messaging more. Those organizations know the depth and complexity of the situations – as a result, I would have more respect for their attempts to stimulate international relations at the community level. For now, I think Coca-Cola should back off, at least until they fix their own international relations – then they can worry about the international relations of others.
      Again, thanks for your response!

  4. Beth Kurylo says:

    Thank you for writing about this ad. I live in Atlanta, the home of Coca-Cola. You asked a question about who the target audience is for this ad. I believe it is idealistic Westerners who think that world peace is as simple as warring parties sitting down with a Coke so they realize they have more commonalities than differences. If that were true, there would be no conflict in the world, right?
    I had the same warm feeling you described when watching the ad. The music, the pretty people, the simple gestures at the Coke display that had “enemies” communicating in a common language. It’s all so attractive. That’s the magic of marketing, and it is what Coke does best. This ad embodies the power they have to change the subject in order to sell fizzy sugar water. Even though they claim to adhere to the “highest ethical standards” and be an outstanding citizen in “every community” they serve, the reality is that their global activity tells a different story (Richards, 2006, p. 1). According to War on Want, an anti-poverty agency based in the UK, Coca-Cola, which needs water to make Coke, has dehydrated local communities and destroyed local agriculture to benefit its manufacturing plants overseas (2006). Workers rights have been violated in Colombia, Turkey, Guatemala and Russia, according to this report. Coca-Cola has been accused of using paramilitaries to counter union activities around the world. Details, including lawsuits and other legal action against Coca-Cola, are included in the War on Want report, the goal of which is to compare the company’s corporate rhetoric with its business practices around the world (Richards, 2006).
    Coke spends $2 billion a year to promote its products, with ads such as the one that moved you. Considering the environmental and social impact its products have had globally, I’m not surprised local residents were offended. They have to live with the results.
    Reference
    Richards, L (2006, March). Coca-Cola: The alternative report. War on Want. Retrieved from http://www.waronwant.org/attachments/Coca-Cola%20-%20The%20Alternative%20Report.pdf

    • Ashley says:

      Wow Beth!
      Your comments really flesh out the latter points of my blog and that alternative report is an amazing resource. I was skeptical about it at first, but when I saw how many resources they identify – it’s actually an excellent report. I would love to see an updated version, wouldn’t it be interesting to see how Coca Cola has evolved in these terms and what further damage they’ve done?

      In terms of the audience question, I feel like you are spot on. Like Caroline and I (who also initially like the ad), it seems like in our hearts we embody this “idealistic westerner” that wants peace, but then when we think of the complexity of the situation, we realize the devastating reality of it.

      From a marketing POV, it’s truly fascinating how Coca Cola targets in on the undeniable values of the heart and builds on them so well it confuses our judgement. Do I buy Coca Cola because they support country relations… or do I not buy Coca Cola because their branding is so inconsistent with their actions? The reason not to buy is too complex for the everyday consumer and ultimately I think people prefer the more effortless, low involvement route over the complex reality. So interesting!
      Thanks for your provoking response!