Today I saw this video on Youtube, and found it deeply disturbing and weird.

In March, Coke installed five special phone booths in Dubai labor camps that accepted Coca-Cola bottle caps instead of coins. In exchange for the cap from a bottle of Coke—which costs about fifty-four cents—migrant workers could make a three-minute international call. The ad shows laborers in hard hats and reflective vests lining up to use the machine—and grinning, for the first time in the video, as they wait. “I’ve saved one more cap, so I can talk to my wife again tomorrow,” one man tells the camera. More than forty thousand people made calls using the machines and 134,484 minutes of calls were logged during the 10 hours a day they functioned from March 21 to April 21 in unspecified labour camps in Dubai.

A Coca Cola spokesperson said that “The Hello Happiness initiative pays tribute to the hard work and efforts of these labourers and serves as a gesture of goodwill and appreciation. The objective was to cater to their needs both emotionally and in a functional manner. We taught the labourers how to utilise the booth, however no promotional or sales agenda was pushed.”

I could not disagree more. Anyone can see that the objective of Coca Cola was not to pay tribute, or to help out workers. It was marketing, plain and simple, with already 2,6 million views on Youtube since 7th of May 2014 till today. While usually, Coca Cola ads are already mildly nauseating with ‘The Coke side of Life’, to do so at the expense of exploited workers in the extreme Dubai conditions is sickening to me.

To pretend this is an example of corporate social responsibility shows how wrong this term can be misunderstood and used. Iain Akerman, editor of advertising-industry magazine Campaign Middle East, said: “I’m cynical about most advertising that is charitable in nature. Most brands and agencies benefit more from such work than the recipients. And if it’s genuinely charitable, why the need to promote it? Any form of corporate social responsibility should not be about making the brand look good but about making a genuine difference to people’s lives.

The lives of Dubai’s migrant laborers are filled with hardship. Foreigners—including thousands of migrant workers from South Asia—make up more than eighty-eight per cent of residents of the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a commercial and cultural center, according to a report this year from Human Rights Watch. The report found that recruiters in countries like India and Pakistan often charge fees of several thousand dollars to migrant laborers to facilitate their trips to the U.A.E. and their employment once they arrive. Once workers reach their destination, employers sometimes confiscate their passports, the report said, and laborers are barred from organizing or bargaining collectively.

Hence, for some people, “Hello Happiness” was an eye opener or a poignant reminder of those difficult circumstances. “Almost made me cry,” one person commented on YouTube. Nearly 14,000 people liked it.

But (luckily) that view was far from universal. 4,400 people gave it a thumbs down. “No offense, but ‘Happiness’ would be working conditions that don’t cause thousands of deaths, non-exploitative contracts, fair wages,” another person wrote. The question is whether Coca-Cola is shedding light on a little-known human-rights crisis and, in its own small way, helping to alleviate the troubles of the victims of that crisis, or whether it is adding to the exploitation of migrant workers in the Middle East and Asia. Even I must admit that it is interesting that Coca Cola would use (abuse?) an issue a bit more controversial than a shirtless hunk mowing the lawn to sell.

The Dubai ad, created by a local agency called Y & R Dubai, belongs to a series called “Where Will Happiness Strike Next,” which tries to celebrate people having “authentic” experiences in which they’re “surprised by something they didn’t expect”. In one new ad in the series, from Singapore, special drones drop boxes of Coke onto construction sites manned by migrant workers; the Coke cans are wrapped in messages of appreciation from Singaporeans. Another ad, in Bangladesh, presents an arcade machine that runs on Coca-Cola empties. Clark said that she has seen a different video, showing Indians and Pakistanis coming together through Coca-Cola, hundreds of times, but that she still gets a lump in her throat when she watches it. Each of these ads has gotten hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.

Extract from: the New Yorker: “I sent links to the ads to Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch who has studied labor conditions in Dubai. The videos, he said, were “odious.” For one thing, he said, Coke is not only using these low-income workers to advertise its product, it is also requiring them to buy soft drinks themselves—at nearly a tenth of their typical daily wages, he pointed out—to use the special phone booth. On top of that, he feels that the ads normalize and even glorify the hardship faced by migrant workers—at least some of whom may be working against their will. “If this was two hundred years ago, would it be appropriate for Coke to do adverts in the plantations of the Deep South, showing slaves holding cans of Coke?” he asked. “It is a normalization of a system of structural violence, of a state-sanctioned trafficking system.”

When I asked Clark about this criticism, she identified a broader challenge for Coca-Cola: “If I think about the over-all context of our campaign and our film, it seeks to include everyone. That’s a tall remit with seven billion people in the world.” She added, “If we want to be the world’s most inclusive brand and say we are, we’ve got to speak to those audiences.” In other words, if Coke’s mission is to sell its product to everyone in the world, it will have to find ways to feature all kinds of people in its ads, including the most downtrodden, and to persuade them of the message that Coca-Cola is synonymous with happiness. When you’re talking to migrant laborers in Dubai, it surely requires more than a small measure of creativity to make that case.

Clark and her colleagues at Coca-Cola aren’t the only ones interested in happiness. So are researchers and policymakers who want to measure global development in terms that go beyond economic models. In recent years, some of them have come up with several factors that tend to contribute most to over-all happiness. They include having a higher income, belonging to a community, being in good health, and feeling satisfied with work. Coca-Cola isn’t on the list.”

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