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Storm fizzes out of a bottle

agenda by k raveendranCoca-Cola’s Facebook page is supposed to have the biggest fan base for any brand. As per the latest tally, the page has over 82 million ‘likes’. A large part of this is obviously built up through paid promotion, but given that this is the highest number any single brand has managed to pull together on any social media platform, it is an achievement that the soft drink company can surely claim credit for.

Despite such strong social media presence, Coke has been slow in pushing ahead with digital advertising, especially on online and mobile platforms. In terms of digital-only advertising, the company’s major launch was as late as last year, when it unveiled the ‘AAH Effect’, a micro-site offering branded content, including games, playlists and images targeting teenagers and children.

In overall digital marketing, the soft drink manufacturer’s Middle East region has seen more launches than many other markets and some of them have been highly successful.

Coca-Cola last week launched a video campaign in Dubai, called ‘Hello Happiness’, using a very unlikely target audience, which has straightaway become controversial. The video, posted on all social media platforms, shows construction workers in labour camps making free telephone calls to their families back home using Coca-Cola branded telephone booths.

 The booths, specially put up by the soft drink company, can be operated with the caps of Coca-Cola bottles instead of coins. Insertion of the cap activates the call, for which the company probably pays. The workers need to buy the drink to get the caps.

The video, which describes the working and living conditions in the labour camps, shows happy callers talking to their loved ones without the need to pay at the regular rates, which are quite high in Gulf countries. By invoking love and family bonding, the ad romanticises the whole experience. A similar campaign was reportedly launched in Singapore earlier.

As soon as the video was launched, it went viral; so did comments expressing different shades of opinion, supporting and opposing the soft drink giant’s move. Nothing was found wrong with the phone calls as such, but critics lambasted the idea of creating a campaign out of the phone calls, saying that it amounted to exploiting the situation of the workers and was therefore insensitive to human rights issues.

Coke has faced the flak on human rights issues at different times and different locations.

There are no two opinions on the desirability of making free or cheaper phone calls available to low-paid workers. Although the rates have come down significantly over the years, telephone calls through official channels still continue to be prohibitively high for a vast majority of the labour population and as such any subsidised call rates would be welcome.

Those who admire the campaign insist that the workers would not have been any better if Coca-Cola had not launched a promotional campaign like this.

But there is obviously a flip side. It would have been a different story if the company had only planned it as a promotional campaign and had put up the booths at sites that it considered appropriate. It would only be seen as a promotion for the soft drink and no questions would be asked.

But the offender here is the video that typically places the callers against the setting of their living conditions and extrapolates the whole thing into an argument in favour of the company’s products and activities. In creating a video out of a routine promotion, the company has used the conditions of the workers as a marketing tool, which may be considered a questionable action.

By implication, the makers of the video may have played into the hands of elements entertaining divergent views on the country’s track record of labour policies and welfare programmes and pursuing their own agenda to show things in a poor light.