We love Coca Cola. Not just the taste or the familiar and comforting design of the can, but its advertising. It’s always managed to make us happy, and in that sense, Coca Cola is a bit of an anomaly in the advertising landscape – not because nobody else is doing great advertising (there’s plenty of it out there), but because it has managed to create moments of brilliance repeatedly.
Unlike so many brands, Coca Cola knows exactly what it stands for. No matter what its most recent tagline is, it has always stood for sharing. And just like any solid person, Coke stays true to itself. It doesn’t change based on season, topical event, or because some genius says; “I think we need a new strategy to reinvigorate the brand”. Coke “reinvigorates” itself by consistently producing cool ways of showing us their single-minded message.
This in turn means that every time Coke’s ad agencies hit a moment of brilliance (and they do it regularly) they build a personality that we recognize immediately as Coca Cola. We predictable humans love and trust consistency; Coca Cola has become something that we can count on. But that hasn’t stopped them trying to impress us.
So when Coca Cola strays into questionable creative territory, it’s deeply unsettling. Everyone has seen at least one of Coke’s continual reinvention of their vending machines. For years it’s been their go-to for stirring emotions and, well, social media shares. And the method has served well.
They’ve had people sending cans of coke around the world, kissing, hugging machines, standing on each other’s shoulders, splitting cans in two, and even bridging political borders in an appropriately whimsical Coca Cola way.
But of late, the creative teams at Coke’s ad agencies have been flirting dangerously with the line that separates heartfelt advertising from exploitation. A line that, you would like to think, should be quite obvious to even the most air-headed creative and blindly enthusiastic marketer.
Alas, it isn’t so. In two recent campaigns it was decided that the pain and anguish felt by poverty-stricken migrant workers was an excellent opportunity to sell a few cans.
The first campaign from Singapore poses the problem that migrant workers are living thousands of miles from their families. It gets Singaporeans to write messages of gratitude, which are delivered with a can of Coke. A charming way of doing absolutely nothing to remedy the problem they’ve highlighted. All the while, the marketing team were rubbing their hands together and telling migrant workers to smile nicely for the cameras.
Then, someone in the marketing team showed it to their colleagues in Dubai, who said; “Hey, we have migrant workers too… Awesome.” And Coke’s next morally questionable campaign was hatched. This one at least went to the effort to address the problem they were posing. They produced a phone booth that allowed the workers to call home. The fact that they were required to be in possession of a Coca Cola bottle cap in order to make the call pushed this campaign from morally ambiguous to corporate and cold-hearted. And that’s not the Coca Cola we know and love.
What makes both of these videos such a moral slurry is that, quite clearly, migrant workers are not part of Coke’s target demographic. What does that mean? It means that Coke isn’t actually trying to attract these people to buy. Rather, using their desperately sad situation to leverage a bit of emotional investment to get us, the richer part of the world, to feel warm and fuzzy about how great Coke is. I’m sure the marketing department knows as well as we do that with a daily wage as low as $2-4, an ice-cold can of Coca Cola is not at the top of every migrant worker’s shopping list. And if they don’t, well, Coke needs a new marketing department.
With that said, we will forgive Coke for stepping out of line this once (or twice as it were), as long at they promise to return to the good old whimsical fun that we’re used to. No more trying to address deep-seated sociopolitical issues or exploitation, and we promise to keep buying your drink.