Coke's Dubai Commercial Falls Far Short of 'Happiness'

The beverage company's efforts to spread 'happiness' fall flat.
May 20, 2014·
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It’s one thing to surprise thirsty mall shoppers with a few extra bottles of Coke. And OK, it seems fine, if a little creepy, to ask passersby to hug a vending machine for their Coke fix. But has Coca-Cola crossed the line with a recent ad that features impoverished migrant workers trading their bottle caps for three precious minutes on the phone with their loved ones thousands of miles away?

You could be forgiven if, at the start of the commercial, you thought you were watching a serious documentary. We see men lined up in the predawn darkness, their hard hats and coveralls somewhat ominously illuminated by the headlights of the buses that have come to pick them up. These are migrant laborers from countries like India and Pakistan who are working in Dubai. According to Vauhini Vara at The New Yorker's Currency blog, recruiters often exact fees of several thousand dollars to secure these men jobs that pay about $6 a day.

But even as the images flickering across the screen imply this rather dismal situation (work-weary faces on the bus; drooping clotheslines in what appears to be a slum; an exhausted worker lying down, his arm flung across his face), we quickly understand that we are in the world of Madison Avenue gloss, not social commentary. “Every day, thousands of South Asian labourers arrive to Dubai to work for a better future,” the ad says.

The brief, poignant accounts from some of the men are touching, even as they appear to be selected by Coke to omit any unpalatable whiff of despair and instead suggest a kind of mythological, American “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” pride. “If working here means my wife, children, and parents can be happy,” one worker says in a voice-over, “then I would stay here forever.”

At first, Coke’s ambition to bring these men a glimmer of happiness in the form of connecting with their families seems admirable. The company designed five special telephone booths that operate using plastic Coke bottle caps instead of money. One bottle cap buys three minutes of phone time, which in an age of unlimited calls and texting seems paltry—but not when you compare it with the dollar per minute these very iPhone-less men typically have to pay.

However, the men had to purchase the bottles of Coke to get the caps. One bottle costs about 54 cents, according to the Currency story—“nearly a tenth of their typical daily wage.” And the phone booths were only up for about a month. Apparently, once Coke had shot its tearjerky commercial, it dismantled the booths and hauled them away.

At least one human rights expert finds Coke’s “Hello Happiness” commercial “odious.” Vara sent a clip of the ad to Nicholas McGeehan at Human Rights Watch. Not only does he object to the soft-drink giant exploiting men who are already arguably being exploited by a corrupt labor system, but he points out that, in Vara’s words, “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 200 years ago, would it be appropriate for Coke to do adverts in the plantations of the Deep South, showing slaves holding cans of Coke?” McGeehan asks. “It is a normalization of a system of structural violence, of a state-sanctioned trafficking system.”

It’s unlikely that Coke’s ad team spent much time researching the working situation of the migrant laborers in Dubai; it has been too busy hopping around the globe setting up its “happiness machines” and then capturing video of unsuspecting people having “authentic” experiences. When criticism of the Dubai commercial cropped up in the midst of that work, Coke's Senior V.P. Wendy Clark tells Currency, the company was “surprised by something they didn’t expect.”

This series of social-media-savvy PR stunts includes a number of "happiness" moments that are seemingly innocuous—if not somewhat terrifying. Here a vending machine in a South African movie theater dispenses extra bottles of Coke along with what seem to be toys and games, while in another ad filmed on an unidentified college campus, a human hand reaches out to offer flowers—yikes! Still others can be seen as more or less laudable, like an arcade game in Bangladesh that’s designed to accept empty Coke bottles for play and thus promote recycling—only the game appears to be a rip-off of Atari’s Pong, circa 1980.

But in venturing further down the socially conscious path, Coke may find its fizzy, feel-good ethos falling flat. In yet another commercial featuring migrant workers, a spooky armada of sci-fi drones drop boxes filled with Coke among what the commercial describes as “Singapore’s invisible people”—the army of foreign laborers who are responsible for erecting the city-state’s skyscrapers. Each can comes wrapped with a Polaroid of a Singaporean holding a handmade sign expressing gratitude to the workers building the city. Never mind that, according to The Daily Beast, these workers often toil for less-than-subsistence wages in dangerous jobs where they have little or no real legal protections and are often subject to wage theft from their employers. What’s all that compared with a cool, refreshing Coke?