New Coca-Cola ad campaign mired in sensitive Israeli identity politics

May 23, 2013

JERUSALEM -- Whatever you think of Coca-Cola's new marketing campaign here, it's certainly getting attention.

In launching the campaign earlier this month, the soft drink company has identified roughly 150 of the most popular Israeli first names and printed them up on bottles and cans of Coke, Diet Coke and Coke Zero.

The goal, presumably, is to personalize the Coke-drinking experience and attract new consumers. However, in a country where cultural identity can be tightly tied to religion and ethnicity, and where issues of perceived inclusion or exclusion are extremely sensitive, the concept of individualizing bottles of Coca Cola can get very tricky.

Earlier this week, one Arab-Israeli citizen sent a legal petition to an Israeli court calling the campaign discriminatory. Not one Arabic name, he pointed out, appears among the popular Israeli names identified by the drinks giant, even though Israel’s Arab population numbers more than 1.5 million. Other complaints have come from members of Israel’s sizable Russian immigrant community and from other minorities, such as arrivals from Ethiopia, whose African names also failed to make the list.

Coca-Cola mounted a defense on its Facebook page, where company representatives are telling disgruntled customers that individuals who cannot find their names can print them out on a coke label at certain designated stores. However, as one NGO working to promote Arab inclusion in Israeli society pointed out, the custom printers might not necessarily be enabled for Arabic script. Coke says that Arabic letters can be printed.

An Israeli blogger, channeling some of the backlash, recently wrote, “When a powerful brand such as Coca Cola chooses to create a campaign based on first names, it is already challenging dealing with cultural-social dilemmas.”

This is not the first time that Coca-Cola has faced this sort of problem. A similar campaign in Sweden put some of the most popular local names on bottles but left out Muhammad, which the company worried would be too controversial.

Printing the name Muhammad, the Islamic prophet, on a plastic soft drink bottle could also offend religious sensitivities; some Muslim consumers could consider it inappropriate to print the name on a consumer product and especially to throw it out when finished.

Coca-Cola may be particularly sensitive to such regional issues; it did not sell in Israel for years, owing to Arab pressure that forced the company to choose between the Israeli and much larger Arab markets.

Ruth Eglash is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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