White Cans, White Lies

Originally published January 2012 in the Leveller, Issue 4.4

Polar Bear's probable reaction to learning it is inadvertently selling Coca-Cola

White Cans, White Lies: Coca-Cola’s Polar Bear Quest
Ajay Parasram

My decrepit wool coat has tears in each of its pockets. The holes lead straight to the inner lining of the jacket; not a good place for pens that inevitably stab my knee cap when I walk, but definitely a good place to smuggle drinks into movie theatres.

Rifling through the depths of my coat liner this past December in a dark cinema, I triumphantly retrieved my smuggled beverage just before the airing of Coca-Cola’s “Arctic Home” holiday advertisement. Turns out the corporation partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to donate $2 million over the next five years towards saving the Arctic.

Set to borrowed footage of polar bears with a tear-jerking introduction about the fragility of the Arctic, a gentle feminine voice-over says:

“As a symbol of our commitment, this holiday we’re turning our red cans white, and contributing $2 million over five years to WWF polar bear conservation efforts. We’ll also match donations made at icoke.ca.”

Since first appropriating the image of the polar bear in 1922, Coca-Cola has used the bears to generate a great deal of profit – especially around the holiday season. In 1993, the company hit it big by animating polar bears. The first animated holiday ad positioned the bears in their Arctic homeland, showing them cracking chilled Cokes while watching the aurora borealis as if it were a movie.

Ken Stewart was the first to animate the bears for Coca-Cola and says he was inspired to do so because of how much his dog resembled a polar bear as a puppy. When Stewart was asked to design the ad, he first associated Coke with movie watching. He then combined polar bears drinking Coke while watching the aurora borealis into the 1993 debut “Northern Lights” ad.

Commenting on how the bears are made to do human things like drinking from bottles, Stewart says on the Coca-Cola website, “That’s really what we were trying to do – create a character that’s innocent, fun and reflects the best attributes we like to call ‘human.’ The bears are cute, mischievous, playful and filled with fun.”

Filled with fun though they may be, there’s nothing fun about how triflingly small Coca Cola’s commitment is to its top sales-bears.

Financial analyst Richard McCormick told the Leveller over email, “Coca-Cola earned $8.5 billion in profits according to the last 12 months of data.” That means Coca-Cola is willing to repay the hard-working polar bears’ 90 years of service to the company with a solid 0.02 percent of one year’s profits. To be fair though, the company also said it would contribute up to another $1 million to match donations made at icoke.ca. That would raise its contribution to 0.035 percent of 12 months’ worth of profits.

The campaign fits nicely into a liberal sentiment of solving serious ecological issues through buying more stuff. Want to save the polar bears? Just buy the white can and look for the white top on the bottles! Coca-Cola set itself up as a kind of charity treasure hunt. But when the campaign failed to increase sales halfway through the holiday season, the white can campaign was ended two months ahead of schedule. Turns out regular Coke drinkers were upset that the white can looked too much like the silver Diet Coke can. The company has released a fact sheet online walking its customers through the differences between the white and traditional red cans. So much for the corporation’s noble proclamation: “We’re turning our cans white because turning our backs wasn’t an option.”

It is somewhat perverse that Coca-Cola and its bottling subsidiaries portray themselves as good corporate citizens with cute or troubling ads about polar bears doing human things while at the same time exploiting their workers worldwide.

Coca-Cola has been complicit in the use of paramilitary forces in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America to silence, intimidate, and even kill labour activists. As noted by labour rights lawyer Daniel Kovalik in the Canadian National Film Board-produced documentary The Coca-Cola Case, 470 workers were killed from 2002 to 2009 alone. The website Killercoke.org notes that although the company consistently denies any involvement in kidnapping, torture, intimidation, and murder, “the company has fought every effort to have an independent investigation into these allegations.” As singer/songwriter David Rovics describes, “Coke is the drink of the death squad!”

Thinking about the actual corporate history of Coca-Cola as I was accosted by their shameless holiday advertisement in the cinema last month, I took a long sip of my bubbly beverage. I relished the fact that my drink wasn’t a Coke, but a President’s Choice Club Soda-Low Sodium. A PC club soda isn’t necessarily better than a Coke, and my selection won’t save the polar bears of the Arctic. But neither will Coca-Cola, despite its best efforts to make us think it may.

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~ by bahtman on February 20, 2012.

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