Coca-Cola ad says Coke vending machines can soothe India-Pakistan tensions

May 20, 2013

A new, three-minute ad by Coca-Cola, "Small World Machines," starts with a relatively straightforward premise: India and Pakistan do not get along so well. It ends with the promise of peace: "Togetherness, humanity, this is what we all want, more and more exchange," a woman, either Indian or Pakistani, narrates as the music swells. Sounds great. How do we get there? By buying Coke, of course.

For the ad, filmed in March, two high-tech Coca-Cola vending machines were wheeled into a shopping mall in Lahore, Pakistan, and another in New Delhi, India. On the front of each machine was a giant, touch-activated 3-D screen. The two were connected, such that the vending machine in Lahore looked like a giant window right into New Delhi, and vice-versa. The machines invited mall-goers on either end to interact with one another, for example by touching hands "through" the screen, by tracing peace signs, even by sharing a dance.

Coca-Cola's global creative director told Ad Age that the idea behind the campaign, according to Ad Age's paraphrase, was about "creating stories around shared experiences" in a way that "goes back to the roots of Coke as a brand that started at a soda fountain -- itself a communal experience." Ad Age also reports that Coca-Cola asked the responsible advertising firm, Leo Burnett, to find "new, open-hearted ways for people to come together, while highlighting the power of happiness."

There's actually more to this than you might initially think. Sharing tasks and short-term, low-risk social interactions are classic conflict resolution tactics, including as a part of the civilian-to-civilian interactions sometimes termed "track two diplomacy."

Still, track two diplomacy is a complicated, rigorous process meant to shape public opinion from the ground up by targeting influential elites and opinion-makers; "the power of happiness" is not enough. The Coke video is charming, but even acknowledging that it's just an advertisement and judging it on those merits, seems to make some surprising promises about the power of peace-making by consumerism. The ad quotes Indians and Pakistanis saying, for example, "It's like, this is what we're supposed to do, right? We are going to take minor steps so that we are going to solve bigger issues."

Indo-Pakistani tensions could use all the help they can get. The two countries, since breaking apart in 1947, have fought three majors wars, including a 1999 incident that almost led to nuclear conflict. Pakistan's military intelligence service has been accused of supporting anti-India terror groups. Polling in both countries suggests Indians and Pakistanis fear and mistrust one another deeply.

Coca-Cola's "Small World Machines" ad echoes the famous "McDonald's theory of conflict prevention," which states that two countries with a McDonalds will never go to war. The theory is that the same globalizing forces that usher in the fast food chain also build enough economic inter-dependence between states and political liberalism within them to prevent war. Unfortunately, this theory was disproven by the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. Alas, this also appears to have been true of Pakistan and India as of their 1999 Kargil War.

In any case, India and Pakistan may have also disproven the much more seriously studied democratic theory of war, which states that two democracies will not go to war. Academics and historians often debate this, though, as it's not clear whether or not both countries met the criteria for democracy at the moment of each of their conflicts. Either way, the point is that this particular conflict is deeply ingrained enough that Coca-Cola vending machines are probably not going to put them on the path to peace.

Ad Age reports that Coca-Cola plans to bring the high-tech vending machines to other countries in conflict. Unfortunately, they did not reveal where they're going next, but I would just humbly submit that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un does love a good piece of gadgetry.

Update: Deputy foreign editor Karin Brulliard, a former Pakistan bureau chief, alerts me that, per the Wall Street Journal, Pepsi dominates the soda market there. Maybe that's what's been holding back peace?

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Max Fisher · May 20, 2013