Provocative ads use voting law to target Coke on labor, obesity

Campaign aimed at “woke” companies that oppose GOP vote initiatives

The minute-long ad begins with a ring of silhouetted people holding hands in a tall grass field. In the next shot, their hands form the letters of the word “love.” But that’s where the idyllic scene ends.

“Just drink Coke, the road to obesity,” a singer croons as an overweight child pours himself a glass of dark soda.

The spot follows the catchy tune of the iconic 1971 “hilltop” ad in which scores of diverse young people gathered in Italy to sing about their desire to buy the world a Coke.

But its message, airing on Atlanta’s top four local television stations over the last week, is designed to be much more provocative. A choir slams “Woka-Cola” for its labor practices in China and for contributing to child obesity and diabetes as images flicker by of obese people giving themselves insulin injections and struggling to button shirts.

Not mentioned in the spot, bankrolled by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Consumers’ Research, is what provoked its rebuke of Coca-Cola: CEO James Quincey’s sharp criticism of Georgia’s new voting law passed by Republicans this spring.

The campaign represents a new front in the fallout over the elections overhaul, which sparked reams of news coverage, boycott threats and non-stop fodder for both parties on the campaign trail. While Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have lambasted Republicans for instituting “Jim Crow 2.0,” the GOP has rallied around the threat of “cancel culture” and the “woke mob.”

Over the last several months, right-leaning Consumers’ Research has embarked on a multi-million-dollar push to name and shame several large companies that have recently spoken out against major conservative priorities.

Will Hild, the organization’s executive director, said his group is nonpartisan and isn’t advocating for any specific approach to elections law. But it is trying to send a message that companies should be cleaning up their own acts rather than weighing in on “woke” political causes.

“You have this phenomenon of companies who have real issues, they have problems with how they treat their customers, and they decided to try and distract from that by wading into these issues and going low,” Hild said in an interview. “We’re putting them on notice.”

The group has aired television ads targeting the likes of American Airlines, which opposed Republicans’ voting bill in Texas, Nike and Major League Baseball, which in April moved its All-Star game out of Cobb County in response to Georgia’s elections law.

For Coca-Cola, Consumers’ Research — which refuses to disclose its donors — commissioned two trucks to drive mobile billboards around Coke’s Atlanta headquarters and the Georgia Capitol for the last month. It created a website with links to news outlets and nonprofits, including several on the left of the political spectrum, that have published reports critical of Coke’s business practices. And it ran a second, 30-second spot with a dark look and tone not unlike a campaign ad that called out Quincey by name for attacking Georgia’s voting law.

While there have been many ads aired in Georgia and across the country blasting the MLB, Consumers’ Research’s is novel for not only directly attacking Coke, a major economic and political force in Georgia, but for highlighting issues like labor and health that would traditionally resonate with those left-of-center.

Wesley Longhofer, a professor at Emory’s Goizueta Business School focused on the intersection of business and society, said some organizations like Greenpeace have found success using provocative ads to force major changes at companies. They’ve done this by compiling compelling evidence and working with corporations to clean up their supply chains, he said.

“But if you’re too antagonistic it’s easy for a corporation to either ignore you or play defense,” he said. “That tends to be less effective than getting corporations to engage in the kinds of change that you’re calling for.”

For its part, Coca-Cola said it respects “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,” the company said in a written statement. “We remain open to productive conversations with groups who may have differing views.”

Coke also defended its human rights policy and highlighted its efforts to reduce added sugar in many of its products.

Consumers’ Research traces its roots back nearly a century and says its mission is to “increase the knowledge and understanding of issues, policies, products, and services of concern to consumers and to promote the freedom to act on that knowledge and understanding.” In the last decade, the group has made a name for itself penning legal briefs backing Republican attorneys general.