After months of effectively ignoring it when activists pointed out the discrepancy between Coke’s self-proclaimed commitment to diversity and their total lack of comment on Russia’s anti-gay laws, the official Olympic sponsor attempted public relations damage control with a Superbowl ad.
The one-minute commercial, titled “It’s Beautiful,” and featuring a multi-language version of the song “America the Beautiful,” promotes diversity in multiple forms, depicting people of multiple races, religions, countries of origin—and, yes, orientations.
At this point, the millions of dollars that it costs to run even the shortest of Superbowl ads might be better spent on charity—or booze for the PR team. Judging from the reactions on YouTube, liberal reactions to the ad were overall lukewarm, while conservatives were livid; Wil Wheaton noted, “I don’t even like Coca-Cola, but I love that this infuriated so many wingnuts.”
More importantly, while many of the people the ad was aimed at did like its message, LGBT activists were hardly mollified by the inclusion of a family headed by a gay male couple; a brief nod of acknowledgement doesn’t make up for Coke’s continued silence regarding Russia’s blatantly oppressive laws. As sex-advice columnist and gay activist Dan Savage posted on Twitter, “Love your endorsement of diversity and tolerance in the USA, @CocaCola—how about some support for Russian LGBT people? #CheersToSochi”
The use of #CheersToSochi is a reference to another company’s PR nightmare. Olympic sponsor, McDonald’s, asked via Twitter, “Are you ready to send your #CheersToSochi?”
The Twitter tag did take off in popularity—but not for the reasons McDonald’s hoped. As noted on PolicyMic, “Members and supporters of the LGBT community don’t exactly want to send ‘cheers’ to Russia when its president has compared homosexuals to pedophiles and people are being tackled to the ground for waving a rainbow flag.” Activists seized on it as an all-purpose protest against companies that have done nothing as security personnel wearing their logos violently take down Russian protestors for peaceful protests.
Similarly, the Share a Coke site, where users could put their names on a virtual can of Coke, was jumped on when users found that typing in “Gay”—which is, in fact, a proper name—resulted in the error message “Oops. Let’s pretend you didn’t just type that.” The censorship was presumably due to an anti-profanity filter gone too far, but users quickly found that it didn’t take much creativity to get around it; they also quickly started using it to create virtual Coke cans emblazoned with terms like “Sochi Shame” and “Homophobes.” Coke was actually forced to end the campaign early, posting that “the promotion has generated an unintended outcome.”
Coke and McDonald’s are far from alone in their silence; none of the leading sponsors of the Sochi Olympics have directly spoken out against the situation in Russia. In another call to action, on January 31, forty of the world’s biggest LGBT and human rights groups released an open letter to the ten members of “The Olympic Partner” (TOP) Program: Atos, Coca Cola, Dow Chemical, General Electric, McDonald’s, Omega, Panasonic, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, and Visa.
The letter reads in part:
Russian citizens and foreigners are banned by law from publicly supporting equality for LGBT people. Activists and journalists who have sought to investigate and denounce such human rights abuses have been secretly recorded, harassed and deported from Russia. LGBT Russians have effectively been pushed to the margins of society and are now forced to live with daily threats to their safety in a country that is promoting state-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia. These threats come in the form of kidnappings, torture, random acts of violence, and bomb threats.
As you know, a country that hosts the Olympics has an obligation to uphold the values contained in the Olympic Charter and its principle of non-discrimination, Principle 6. The Russian government has failed to do this, and the IOC has remained silent.
We come to you with one simple request: to use your voice to insist on changes that will make a difference in the future.
• Individually or collectively, condemn Russia’s anti-LGBT law;
• Use your Olympics-related marketing and advertising — both domestically and internationally — to promote equality during the weeks leading up to and during the Games themselves;
• Ask the IOC to create a body to monitor serious Olympics-related human rights abuses in host countries as they occur; and
• Task the IOC with ensuring future Olympic host countries honor their commitments to upholding the Olympic Charter, including Principle 6 which forbids discrimination of any kind…
As all eyes turn toward Sochi, we ask you to stand with us.
As of February 3, five days before the start of the Sochi Olympics, none have responded.