Creepy Ad Watch

by Jonah Shepp

Vauhini Vara flags a new campaign by Coca-Cola featuring guest workers in Dubai:

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. Then, in April, after the booths had been up for about a month, the company dismantled them.

At first glance, the ad may seem innocuous, even sweet, until you consider how Coke is exploiting these workers’ misery to burnish its friendly image:

I sent links to the ads to Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch who has studied labor conditions in Dubai. I was interested in his take on the questions of appropriateness and ethics that some viewers had raised. 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.”

The Dish recently looked at the conditions of guest workers in Dubai and other Gulf states here.