Is Controversy Coca-Cola's New Currency?

The soda maker can't seem to put out an ad these days without stirring up some pot.

May 21, 2014 at 2:16PM

Screen Shot

Source: Screenshot from "Coca-Cola Hello Happiness" commercial.

As each new Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) promotion seems to invite controversy, you wouldn't be blamed for thinking the soda king was purposely creating provocative advertising to get people talking. After all, as Oscar Wilde once noted, "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

The latest advertising effort by the beverage company involves a commercial depicting South Asian workers emigrating to Dubai to work for the equivalent of $6 per day. Since a telephone call back home can cost upward of $0.91 per minute, there's little opportunity for them to stay in contact with loved ones.

As the ad shows, Coca-Cola developed a "Hello Happiness Phone Booth" that accepted bottle caps as currency, allowing the workers to make a three-minute call for each one used. The commercial shows workers lining up to deposit the red caps into the slot and call home. An image of a soda bottle draining out reveals how much time a caller has left. One worker even talks about saving a cap to make another call the next day. A Coke costs approximately $0.54; the booths were dismantled in April after being in service for about a month.

Although it could be seen as Coke helping impoverished people in need, instead the company is being criticized for exploiting hapless workers for its own gain. 

Coming on the heels of another controversial ad that seemingly exhorted soda drinkers to use illicit substances, the latest effort indicates Coke has a penchant for putting itself in people's mouths, though not necessarily as intended. The placement of the word "diet" for its calorie-free soft drink in the prior campaign made it appear the ads were saying, "You're On Coke." The campaign only ran for a brief time, and though Coke said pulling the ad had nothing to do with the double entendre, but rather that it had simply run its course, it was still left explaining that it didn't endorse illegal substance abuse.

Similarly, its Super Bowl ad celebrated diversity by having the song "America the Beautiful" sung in a multitude of languages, but still ignited controversy that forced the beverage maker to explain what it was trying to achieve. And that one followed yet another controversial Coke promotion in which an American word was paired with a French one to create a unique phrase, though it inadvertently resulted in a phrase offensive to those with mental disabilities. Coke quickly ended that campaign and apologized.

Companies at times do run advertising reveling in the risque, aiming to seem edgy as they try to connect with a younger and knowing crowd. Abercrobmie & Fitch, American Apparel, and Calvin Klein have long used ads that skirt the line of decency, while Benetton and Nike stir up angst for the messages they run. Yet even more staid, mainstream companies, including Ford (for an ad featuring a group of scantily clad women tied up in the back of a hatchback driven by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) and Dunkin' Brands (for a model in blackface) have run afoul of good taste. That could be why some people found controversy in Coke's latest ad where none is intended. 

As with the Super Bowl ad, I didn't find this latest commercial offensive, agreeing with Sigmund Freud that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. How about you? Is Coca-Cola once again trying to capitalize on controversy, or is it just much ado about nothing? Sound off in the comments section below.

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Rich Duprey owns shares of Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and Nike. The Motley Fool recommends Coca-Cola, Ford, and Nike. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Nike and has the following options: long January 2016 $37 calls on Coca-Cola and short January 2016 $37 puts on Coca-Cola. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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