Coca-Cola posted this video on 7 May, a short film made by Y&R in Dubai. When I last looked, it had been viewed more than 2 million times.
Personally, I find it to be a heart-warming story that showcases a marketing activation that fits perfectly with the idea of Coca-Cola bringing people little moments of happiness. It does, however, seem to be generating quite a lot of controversy.
I appreciate that I am writing about something that was posted on the web on 7 May – over a month ago. That can seem like staggeringly old news (and certainly would to my teenage children) – however, I am not trying to make a point about our modern hyper-speed world.
The idea that something is no longer new because it is a month old and can be transmitted to all points of the world almost instantaneously, and accessed from all points of the world almost instantaneously, still amazes me.
In 1967 when my family were living abroad, my mother found out that her mother had cancer via a telegram – which said 'COME HOME IMMEDIATELY STOP LOULIE ILL STOP'.
She travelled for three days from Manila, in the Philippines, to Manchester knowing no more than those seven words – and both the telegram and the flight home were incredibly expensive. My grandmother survived bowel cancer and lived for another 24 years – and I remember my mother saying how amazing it was that she found out so quickly and was able to come home and be with her.
In the same way that I am not trying to make a point about speed – I am also not trying to make a point about pricing. There are some basic services that have reduced so dramatically in price that we sometimes forget!
I went to the airport and flew standby to Los Angeles in 1984 for £600. I was there in March this year – and my economy ticket cost £625. Twenty years and inflation of almost zero. International telecommunications is the same – and, indeed, has actually been reducing in price in both real and nominal terms.
I remember it costing my grandmother more than £1 per minute to call us in Caracas in 1974 (which was itself a technical a step up from the 1967 telegram) – and the same call today at BT’s most expensive domestic customer rate would be 83p per minute – and could be as low as 0.5p per minute using a calling plan or Skype.
My real point is about how trust is an important component of how we read people’s intentions.
Coca-Cola is doing something nice for construction workers in Dubai by enabling some extra contact with home. Buy a Coke and get a three-minute call home. It has made a nice video about this – full of happy construction workers thrilled to be able to afford extra time talking to their families far away.
However, a large number of the comments are negative – accusing Coke of somehow being complicit in the poor working conditions and pay for the construction workers – and of exploiting them by 'making them' buy a Coke in order to get the free call. I’ve seen very little that lambasts the construction companies for their working conditions (and failure to provide cheap calls home themselves). Very little castigating UAE for its lack of a minimum wage or protection of the workers’ rights.
The truth of the situation is that when you distrust a corporation you distrust its motives – even when it is doing something that is largely good. People get the Coke and the phone call home – but somehow people are wary of Coke’s motives for providing it.
This is a big issue for corporations around the world, and they would do well to remember that whilst we ultimately buy their products because they provide some utility or enjoyment (or refreshment), they are also part of the societies where they sell those products and services. We notice when they don’t pay their taxes or look after their employees – and that can take the shine off how good we feel when we see them trying to be good.
Whatever we might think about the rights or wrongs of the situation, the truth is that Coca-Cola wants us to feel good and our suspicion of their motives can interfere with that.
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