Coca-Cola is not homophobic

1/27/2014 07:18:00 PM
Eye witnesses report that this arest was in fact made as a result of displaying the rainbow flag, not because because of a security line breach. You can see Coke's logo in the white hexagon on the officer's pant leg.
My facebook feed is being increasingly filled with posts about a recent controversy involving the Coca-cola company and gay rights (even Hindustan Times picked up the story!). The controversy is a weird mix of two separate incidents:

First, there was the image caught of official Olympic security cracking down against gay-rights activists in Sochi, who were protesting Russia's distinctly vengeful "gay propeganda" law. If you are wondering what that has to do with Coke, the answer is pretty weak: as a paying sponsor of this year's winter olympics, Coke's logo was emblazoned on the uniform of the offending security officer (it's in the little white hexagon on the officer's pant leg in the picture). I get that this makes for some bad publicity, but we need to recognize that the security officer works for the Olympic committee, and was not in any way employed by the Coca-cola company itself--they had no control over or role in this incident. Now, some activists are trying to portray Coke's public response to the incident as the real cause of offense, since, when asked "Gay rights are being oppressed in Russia, what is Coke doing to speak out?" their response was rather offensive: "That’s not very classy. Let’s have a polite conversation." However, let's keep in mind that this question was not sent to Coke's media relations office, nor to a company executive--it was "asked" through an online chat room "virtual agent" which, as far as I can tell, is an AI program that auto-generates responses to questions like "where can I buy a Coke?" This is clearly not the space to ask them about major human rights abuses. It's true that, in retrospect, Coke's web programmers were a bit lazy in their choice of default answers for such questions, but it's not hard to see where they were coming from: the probably imagined that mischievous internet troll would type something along the lines of "Coca-cola is gay!!!" in which case their auto-response "That's not very classy. Let's have a polite conversation." would have been exactly the right one.

The second part of this controversy has to do with a marketing campaign in which you can go to this website and type in a name which will then appear on a Coke can in place of Coca-Cola's typical logo. Obviously, there's no one sitting reading each name that gets typed anywhere on the internet--its just another AI that attempts to filter out the offensive trolls. It turns out, again, that the programming used for this AI is fairly naive--the word "Gay" appears to be strictly prohibited, auto-generating the response "Oops, let's pretend you didn't just type that." And again, its not hard to see why they chose to filter the word gay--they meant to prevent trolls from using the term "gay" in a derogatory, homophobic sense. Indeed, while that was certainly a lazy choice, it wasn't a homophobic choice--quite the opposite, we can view this as a gay-affirmative attempt to prohibit homophobia on their internet apps.

I think these incidents say a lot about society, but very little about the Coca-cola company. It is true that the term "gay" was prohibited but the term "straight" was not, but this is merely indicative of the broader bias in society against LGBT people--the term "gay" is often used as an insult, while "straight" is not. We ought to encourage Coke to make their products more LGBT-inclusive (and perhaps offer some constructive suggestions on how to do that, rather than boycott), but let's not get too offended at what appears to have been little more than an effort to combat homophobic language on the internet.

If you are interested what the Coca-Cola company actually thinks about gay rights and LGBT inclusion, I recommend you stop reading and head over to the company's actual statement on the matter:
"As one of the world’s most inclusive brands, we value and celebrate diversity. We have long been a strong supporter of the LGBT community and have advocated for inclusion and diversity through both our policies and practices. We do not condone intolerance or discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world.... We are engaging with the International Olympic Committee on this important matter. We believe a more positive impact can be made through continued involvement, rather than by sitting on the sidelines.
Far from being homophobic, Coca-cola is one of this country's most gay-friendly employers, consistently earning the Human Rights Campaign's top rating on LGBT equality. It doesn't stop there. They also sponsor gay pride parades, gay-rights initiatives like Spirit Day and GLAAD, and funded a global initiative against AIDS in high-risk communities, including the LGBT community.

Perhaps some blogger out there will prove me wrong and show that I've gravely misjudged Coke's intentions, but until then I will treat Coke with the same indifference as I always have, and with a clear conscience too.