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Coca-Cola in Saudi Arabia: Can a corporation really have a social conscience? Open in fullscreen

Amal Awad

Coca-Cola in Saudi Arabia: Can a corporation really have a social conscience?

After drinking a Coke, the young Saudi woman apparently has no trouble learning to drive[YouTube]

Date of publication: 15 November, 2017

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Comment: It's difficult to see the inclusion of Muslims in ad campaigns as little more than a cynical marketing exercise being portrayed as a socially conscious one, writes Amal Awad.
Recently, Coca Cola attempted to increase its presence in the Middle East with a new ad campaign celebrating Saudi Arabian women being granted the right to drive. 

You might have seen the advert: a sweet nod to supportive males trying to help women in a world where being a woman has its share of challenges. Indeed, supportive men in such a world are important. 

As is - apparently - a cold bottle of Coke in the desert heat.

In the ad, a father attempts to instruct his daughter on how to drive a car. She is having trouble - until he places a bottle of Coke on the dashboard. The young woman finds her courage… and humanity weeps.

The ad closes with a wink and a plug: "Change has a taste."

Clever, sure, but also ridiculous.

The change in Saudi Arabia has been a long time coming, and has seen a great deal of pain and trouble for its agitators. Somehow, I doubt fizzy drinks play a role in progressing their agendas.

However, that a large commercial brand would seek to profit from social justice isn't new. Not surprisingly, backlash against the ad saw many a comparison to the disastrous Pepsi ad from earlier this year, featuring American model Kendall Jenner saving lives with a can of soda. 

A discerning consumer audience is switched on enough to not only be cynical, but also critical of the message coming from a business

Pepsi apologised for so greatly missing the mark, saying it "…was trying to project a global a message of unity, peace and understanding". This, not unlike the famous Coke ad immortalised in the finale of Mad Men, which proclaimed "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" at a time of great civil unrest and heightened social awareness in the US. 

Pepsi's ad is diverse - it even had a hijabi woman - but it's no surprise it failed to find support: The clip also tone deaf, sprinkling sunshine and good vibes on protest movements concerned with deeply troubling social issues, many of which, if not all, relate to wealth and class divides.

A discerning consumer audience is switched on enough to not only be cynical, but also critical of the message coming from a business. They have ridiculed the idea that a consumer product like a can of Pepsi can unite people (it can't), and that the machinery of a profit-making enterprise cares about the little guy buying its product.

And now, Coke is a using seismic social change in Saudi Arabia to sell its message of "we're all in this together, so drink a Coke when disrupting the status quo".

Note to businesses interested in profit: Disruption of the status quo is unlikely to have a desirable effect for capitalist enterprises.

We live in dark and uncertain times. Yet, both Pepsi and Coke are trying to sell their product by suggesting they have a social conscience. That in a highly connected global village, these businesses are not simply motivated by profit - they care and are plugged into the issues plaguing consumers.

Putting aside the questionable decision to link a sugary drink to the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, more interesting is the way in which companies are increasingly putting on a show of diversity. The result is a fascinating but not necessarily progressive interaction between commercial forces, and religion and culture.

Take Nike's new range of hijab-friendly sportswear - useful perhaps to Muslim women active in sport - but it's also, quite simply, a company profiting from a gap in the market. But in a time when diversity in representation seems more important than ever, we are supposed to celebrate this inclusion, unquestioningly.

Elsewhere, Rihanna famously included a hijab-clad model in her ad for her Fenty Beauty campaign. Vogue Arabia slapped American-Arab model Gigi Hadid on its premiere cover, playing into the stereotype of the exotic, sexy veiled woman, reducing it to a commercial offering, not a symbolic act.

And of course, look no further than Mattel's new "Sheroes" range, which celebrates female winners - including the American-Muslim Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammed.

Yes, Barbie finally has a hijab-wearing doll, years after the Arab world offered up its antidote to the western ideal in Fulla, a hijab-wearing lookalike who does appropriate things like house-wifing and school teaching.

Muhammed is no doubt a "shero" to many girls, especially Muslim ones not used to seeing themselves represented in mainstream anything.

"I hope that little girls of colour across the heartland will be inspired to embrace what makes them unique," said Muhammed, an impressive achiever, who is understandably excited and full of praise for the inclusion.

If companies hope to play up to the modern consumer's desire to see diversity, they must also expect us to come with politics and values

It's undoubtedly an achievement to be recognised in such a way. Regardless of your feelings on Barbie and what she means to the formative minds of little girls, it's a big deal that Mattel is including such a role model in its new range - a Muslim Barbie, and one who is visibly so.

But this also plays into an emerging trend of propping up the hijab as the only way a Muslim woman looks; that diversity and inclusion has to be obvious; that we should embrace new stereotypes rather than continue with old ones.

There is undoubtedly a market for Muslim consumers and it's not surprising that companies are finally realising the benefits of catering to them. 

But the frustration comes when these mega-corporations insist that they care, particularly when so many are under scrutiny for factory practices and their production footprint.

If companies hope to play up to the modern consumer's desire to see diversity, they must also expect us to come with politics and values. Cherry-picking the marketable face of diversity is just not an option.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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