Just before the Star-Spangled Banner ceremonially started Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, a minute long commercial with a message of “unity and positivity” kicked off one of the most commercialized events on the planet. No, the NFL did not welcome back Colin Kaepernick. And PETA did not join forces with Tom Brady to promote veganism (is Tom Brady even vegan?). Rather, Atlanta hometown sweetheart Coca-Cola was promoting diversity and inclusion in their Warhol inspired advert “A Coke is A Coke.” The company is purported to be rolling out the red carpet for everyone, including rival Pepsi. As other companies like Nike and Gillette join the social justice crusade with their own campaigns, is this the dawn of the ethical corporation? But, is this really about changing minds and perceptions to create unity? Selling Diversity, Unity & Social Justice was first published as a two part series at Culture on the Edge.
Social Justice For Sale
In the 1970’s, advertising company McCann-Erickson found a way for Coca-Cola to bottle inclusivity and diversity. The message was simple: drink Coke and people from all over the world will live together in harmony. They appropriated a message of peace and love, commodifying an entire 1970’s movement. A bottle of Coke now symbolized the casting off of difference and the coming together of youth all across the world. Coca-Cola created authentic connections – It’s the Real Thing. Still seen today as one of the most iconic advertising campaigns of all time, the commercial is Don Draper’s crowning achievement in the series finale of Madmen.
(The full story on Coca-Cola’s own website)
Almost 50 years later, Coca-Cola continues to promote diversity and inclusivity in their commercials. Their newest advert’s message: “we all have different hearts and hands, heads holding different views. Don’t you see? Different is beautiful, and together is beautiful too.” The purpose of the commercial according to Stuart Kronauge, vice president of marketing for Coca-Cola North America: Coca-Cola has “a long history of using the country’s biggest advertising stage to share a message of unity and positivity, especially at times when our nation feels divided… This year, we decided to place our ad just before the national anthem as Americans come together in their living rooms to remind everyone that ‘together is beautiful.”
Coke certainly isn’t the only corporation promoting their products with messages of social responsibility. Nike recently embraced Colin Kaepernick as the face of one of their newest campaign. It’s said to be one of the most talked-about and successful ads in recent years. Kaepernick is believed by many to be blackballed from playing in the NFL due to his protests against racism, social inequality, and police brutality that were carried out by kneeling during the national anthem. Nike decided to put Kaepernick and his social justice protest center-stage. The Just Do It adverts promotes a simple message spoken by Kaepernick: “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Gillette’s recent stand against toxic masculinity has gone viral. The advert directly borrows from the ongoing #metoo and anti-bullying movements asking if continued bullying, sexual harassment, and the promotion of a macho stereotypes is “The Best a Man Can Get.” The commercial shows men standing up for women, breaking up fights and acting as better fathers — a challenge to the motto “boys will be boys.”
Sure, let’s pat these corporations on the back for promoting diversity, social justice, and inclusivity. Certainly, they seem like they are on the right side of history. But whose interests do they really have in mind? Who is really included in these global notions of “unity?” Whose “social justice” matters? Do these commercials actually challenge our society or hold the status quo?
The Hidden Costs of Super Commercials of Unity & Social Justice
Recent advertisements from companies like Coca-Cola, Nike and Gillette promote varying aspects of social responsibility via campaigns of unity, diversity, and social justice. Is this the dawn of the ethical corporation? Is this about changing minds and perceptions to create unity? Do these campaigns challenge the system or is this just about maintaining a status quo?
Since that Coca-Cola hilltop commercial first played 50 years ago, the image of inclusivity the brand portrays today is salient as ever. Yet, the company is accused of dehydrating communities around the world of one of the most vital resources: water ( In Town With Little Water, Coca-Cola Is Everywhere. So Is Diabetes). Greenpeace notes that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé were found to be the worst plastic polluters worldwide in global cleanups and brand audits. The company is also charged with violating workers’ rights in a number of countries such as Columbia, Turkey, Guatemala and Russia (Coca-Cola: Drinking the World Dry). Who are they really including in their messages of “unity and positivity?”
While Nike, supposedly supports social justice, splashing billboards with Kaepernick, the company is being sued by two former female employees claiming a culture of sexual harassment and gender bias. According to the New York Times, the lawsuit claims “that Nike spent years hiring women at lower salaries than men, discriminating against women during performance reviews and promoting female employees less frequently than male counterparts doing comparable work.” And another article highlights the ongoing sexual harassment taking place within the company: “for too many women, life inside Nike had turned toxic.” Whose social justice does Nike really care about?
So, while we can applaud Nike’s effort to align with Kaepernick, we should remember their campaign was a well thought out calculation to gain market share. It made “good business sense,” and as stated by Mark Parker, the chief executive of Nike, the campaign created “record engagement with the brand.” Following the advert, Nike’s stock surged to an all-time high. All of this during a time the corporation was dealing with sexual harassment charges.
Proctor and Gamble continues to profit from years of promoting images of a gender divided world via their Gillette brand. It’s a company that colour codes products based on a constructed gender divide — all for the purpose of selling multiple items to a house that only needs one item. For years Gillette’s adverts dictated the stereotype of what a man and woman should be, how they should act, and particularly how they should make themselves presentable to society. In many ways Gillette is complicit in the very thing (toxic masculinity) they challenge.
The contradiction of these “social responsible” adverts is being pointed out by many, including one article over at Flare:
“Had Gillette truly wanted to pave the way for actual change in gender inequities, they could have taken a far bolder step. The men who disproportionately figure in P&G’s U.S.’s executive (only nine of 30 are women; its 13-member board of directors features four women) could have acted ‘the right way’ and also in a truly radical way: by ending the absurd gender-ification and price discrimination perpetuated in the marketing of shaving products.”
For corporations with strongly gendered products lines like Gillette, social justice campaigns are carefully crafted and calculated to determine the potential sales growth from one segment of the political spectrum. As Proctor and Gamble’s own CFO Jon Moeller states “it’s a part of our effort to connect more meaningfully with younger consumer groups.” The advert received “unprecedented levels” of media coverage and customer engagement. Even with a backlash to the advert, sales are staying steady and they continue to gain more customers. These campaigns capitalize on the current state of divisiveness around political issues.
Rather than challenging the system, these commercials reinforces the status quo of what many already agree with politically or morally. Corporations align themselves with current trends to gain market share by associating themselves with various social justice movements — maintaining the system, maintaining their profits, and maintaining their supposed moral imperatives.
So, as we sit back with a Coke in hand, wearing a Nike branded NFL jersey, and with a clean shave courtesy of Gillette, let’s remember what these advertisements are selling: identities. They are commodifying images of the globally unified citizen and the social justice warrior. That you too can be a socially responsible consumer by aligning with their products. While one may agree with the messages being promoted, corporations conduct risk assessment to gauge the outcomes from these types of campaigns to protect their bottom line.
It should not be surprising that profits are the driving force for these corporations. So, let’s ask whose notion of unity or diversity they have in mind when they advertise to us? Is it the people that are suffering from water shortages around the world due to poor business practices? Whose claims of social justice are supported? Does it include women who are sexually harassed at their workplace? What is at stake when challenging long held gender stereotypes? Is it people or profits?
Corporations do not make objective claims about inclusion, diversity, or social justice. These super commercials are meant to conceal the other costs associated with the products we buy, the costs that much of the rest of the world must bear.
Selling Diversity, Unity & Social Justice was first published as a two part series at:
Culture on the Edge