Despite its recent foray into divisive politics, it appears the country’s most iconic soda company still wants the majority of Americans to have a Coke and a smile.
A conservative group’s $1 million ad campaign against what it considers “woke capitalism” seems to be having an impact, at least in the case of Coca-Cola and its executives’ desire to lower the political temperature.
The ads, which pointedly criticize several CEOs on a range of issues — from contributing to childhood obesity to failing to stand up to the forced labor of China’s Uyghur minority — are aimed at trying to curb corporate boards taking political sides on such controversial issues as voting rights.
The first round of ads calls out Coca-Cola, American Airlines, and Nike for siding with Democrats in recent legislative fights and what the ads argue is the companies’ decisions to put politicians before their customers.
As the ads began running this week on Fox Business and CNBC, and in markets where the companies are headquartered, Coca-Cola pledged to respect everyone’s First Amendment rights and work together on a “path forward.”
"We respect everyone’s right to raise their concerns and express their views, but we also believe the best way to make progress now is for us all to come together to listen, respectfully share concerns and collaborate on a path forward," Coca-Cola told RealClearPolitics in a statement. "We remain open to productive conversations with groups who may have differing views."
Coca-Cola also tried to address the ads’ criticism that its sugary drinks are a leading cause of obesity, saying the company has "taken steps to help people reduce the amount of sugar they consume" in the U.S. and around the world.
“We’ve been changing recipes to reduce the amount of added sugar in our beverages, promoting low and no-calorie options and making smaller packages more available to help with portion control,” the company said.
American Airlines, which the ads sharply criticize for CEO Doug Parker’s $10 million salary in 2020 amid layoffs and taxpayer-funded company bailouts, declined to comment on the ads. Instead, the company appeared to double down on its decision to wade into politics against GOP legislation by sending RCP its previous April 1 statement strongly opposing a Texas voting law. The statement notes that the company believes “we should break down barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion in our society, not create them.”
How the Texas voting law impacts access to voting has been greatly debated by Democrats and Republicans over the last few months after an earlier Georgia GOP elections law prompted Major League Baseball to pull its All-Star Game out of suburban Atlanta. Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines (which, like Coke, is headquartered in the Peach State) and JPMorgan all criticized the new statute.
Nike didn’t immediately respond to an RCP request for comment.
“To the extent [Coca-Cola’s] latest statement is a commitment to stop serving the politicians and focusing on its customers, it’s promising,” said Will Hild, executive director of Consumers Research, the group that launched the ads. “To the extent it’s just hand-waving and trying to act like there’s no problem, like they haven’t been distracting from their bad business practices and the problems with their products and how they treat customers, it’s just more of the same.”
Consumers Research is a dark-money group that does not disclose its donors. The ad argues that Coke is “getting political” as a way to distract from “years of dismal sales,” and reports that the company benefited from forced labor in China as well as the revelation that internal company documents show it marketed drinks to teens, despite an “obesity crisis.”
Hild also takes issue with Coca-Cola’s decision to sponsor the Beijing Olympics when human-rights groups and politicians across the ideological spectrum, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have called for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Games over China’s forced internment of more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims. (A diplomatic boycott allows athletes to participate, but heads of state would stay away.)
“There’s a big problem with production facilities in China – including potentially forced labor,” he said.
In its lengthy statement to RCP, Coca-Cola said it “respects human rights everywhere. … We operate and have strict policies prohibiting forced labor in our business and with our suppliers.”
The ad hits American Airlines for being rated “the worst” airline in 2021 for the second year in a row, for losing the most bags, and shrinking leg room in recent years, even as it took a reported multibillion-dollar bailout from COVID relief funds.
“American Airlines, serve your customers, not woke politicians,” the ad concludes.
When it comes to Nike, the ad starts out with a photo of Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who garnered the national spotlight in 2016 after taking a knee during the national anthem to protest what he believes is systemic racial injustice in this country. The image of Kaepernick, who has appeared in several Nike commercials, is then quickly replaced by television news reports citing congressional reports that suspect Nike used forced Uyghur labor to makes shoes in China. When members of Congress wrote bills that would prevent Nike from using forced labor, the ads says Nike fought back by spending $920,000 on “in-house lobbying of Congress.”
“Rather than hire Americans, Nike chose China,” the ads states. “CEO John Donahoe, Nike, stop exploiting foreign labor, serve your customers, not woke politicians.”