With sparkling eyes and bad dance moves, the whites came. They drove an El Camino. They wielded saws unconvincingly. They shouted “Woo!”
And, while drinking Coca-Cola and sharing bottles of the black bubbly stuff with unfortunate natives, they built just what a small Mexican community where many speak an indigenous language needed: A giant Christmas tree made out of red lights that look like bottle tops.
This was an ad recently unleashed by the world’s largest beverage company upon Mexico — until it was pulled after protests by health and indigenous rights’ advocates.
The ad, it seemed, attempted to address prejudice against those who speak indigenous languages in Mexico. The brown community Coca-Cola’s pale angels visited includes many speakers of Mixe, a language spoken in the Mexican state of Oaxaca’s eastern mountains.
“This Christmas a group of young people decided to give something very special to the indigenous community of Totontepec [Villa] de Morelos in Oaxaca,” as the Associated Press translated. “You, too, open your heart.” Claiming that 81.6 percent of Mexicans speak an indigenous tongue, the ad concludes with the words “We will stay united” emblazoned on the tree in Mixe. Hashtag: “#AbreTuCorazon,” or “open your heart.”
Though the value of Fortune 500 companies’ holiday messaging is up for debate, the ad seemed to stumble on its own intentions. First, obesity and diabetes are prevalent in Mexico — as in the United States — and particularly among indigenous people in the south. Second: Didn’t the idea that indigenous communities needed Coca-Cola smack of the very colonialism to which they fell victim in the first place?
“White Mexicans can help,” one Twitter user wrote. “Give them back their land instead of a
#CocaCola and stop the repression.”
“Pathetic,” wrote another. “In this ad spoiled white youth give
#CocaCola to poor mexicans.”
The controversy comes at an unfortunate time for Coca-Cola. The same day the Mixe ad drew criticism, it was announced that an anti-obesity nonprofit the company had funded — and reportedly guided too closely — was being disbanded, as CBS reported.
“Effective immediately, GEBN is discontinuing operations due to resource limitations,” the Global Energy Balance Network said in a statement posted to its Web site. “We appreciate the commitment to energy balance that the membership has demonstrated since our inception, and encourage members to continue pursuing the mission ‘to connect and engage multi-disciplinary scientists and other experts around the globe dedicated to applying and advancing the science of energy balance to achieve healthier living.'”
Last week, the Associated Press reported on eyebrow-raising e-mail exchanges between the beverage company and the organization supposed to help combat the dangers its products present. The company, among other things, helped edit GEBN’s Web site and mission statement.
“I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them,” the group’s president wrote to a Coke executive.
In the wake of the controversy, Coke’s chief scientist Rhona S. Applebaum resigned just before Thanksgiving.
“At one food industry conference in 2012, Dr. Applebaum gave a talk outlining Coca-Cola’s strategy of ‘cultivating relationships’ with top scientists as a way to ‘balance the debate’ about soft drinks,” the New York Times reported.