OFWs, Happiness, and Coke . [Or Why a Coca-Cola Advert is Short Circuiting My Brain]
Let’s get the obvious over with: This is a FANTASTIC advertisement. It has a strong emotional pull, high production values, and connects the product to family, struggle, and how hardship can be overcome by the simple things, like a Coca-Cola.
Well done Coke. [insert ironic soft clap here]
I hate this ad. I hate it with a passion. And it seems from a casual viewing of the comments related to this viral video, that I am somehow virtually alone in thinking this.
In the ad, Coke sends a handful of overseas foreign workers (OFWs) back to the Phils to reconnect with their families. Its central message seems to be: Coke cares about the plight of OFWs.
And there for me is the disconnect.
While I appreciate this piece of propaganda for what it is I know that in reality, instead of helping OFWs, Coca-Cola is actually part of the problem. Like other multinational capitalistic ventures in the Philippines its policies are actually facilitating poverty and migration—in other words, Coke helps create the OFW phenomenon and therefore the ad is an insult.
Moreover, I know that most viewers also know this to be true. They may not know the specific details, but they know that multinationals have NOT been good for the majority of the people in the global south, including in the Philippines—so why all the love for the ad?
I want to explore this.
Coca-Cola has had a long history in the Philippines, its primary economic connection is tied to the Philippine sugar industry. Coke bought Philippine sugar, and so indirectly supported the sugar haciendas that ‘employed’ Filipino peasant farmers.
Philippine sugar was one of the main reasons for the American invasion in 1899. President McKinley was backed by The Sugar Trust, the 6th largest US corporation which controlled 98% of the sugar refining interests. The RP economy was set up to supply American sugar needs with ‘locally’ produced sugar. Before WWII sugar made up 60% of the value of all Philippine exports.
At that time the industry supported over one million jobs (total RP population in 1939, 16 million). Today that number is at best around the 500,000 mark (population today over 94mil).
The industry has been in decline since “independence” and then further in the 1960s with the development of the corn syrup (sugar still made up about 20% of RP exports). The big crash began in the 1980s when Coke switched from sugar to corn syrup in its US product (it went down to 7% of RP exports), and it’s getting worse: just this past summer the RP sugar industry proposed a boycott of Coke for bypassing the Philippine sugar market all together.
“As you may know, our province is very well-known as the sugar bowl of the Philippines and is very dependent on sugar industry…and recently, government agencies have found out that Coca-Cola has been deceiving them by importing millions of kilos of sugar… intentionally labeled as pre-mix sugar by coca-cola to escape from sugar tariff. This has been the cause why the sugar economy has been going down and definitely this will kill not only the planters and sugar workers, but the whole province as well…” [29 May 2011, Batang Negros]
The fall of the sugar industry alone (an industry created by the Americans to serve them and then simply abandoned when it was no longer useful) has resulted in very clear economic losses for the Philippines and its people.
Look again at that timeline.
The sugar industry began to fall apart in the 60s and intensified in the 80s to near collapse today. What else happened in that period?
Those were the decades that gave birth to the RP governments unofficial Labour Export Policy, a system that went into full gear in the 80s as a way to prop up the governments budget deficits. A country that was set up to be an export of raw goods was financially desperate, so they became an exporter of people. In 1984 around 350,000 OFWs left the country. By 2006 over 1 million were migrant workers.
To me, this alone should be enough reason for the Filipino people to have negative feelings towards Coca-Cola and American economic policies.
But that isn’t the only ill brought upon us by the cola company. Coke has also been bottled in the country since 1912, and their presence has done nothing to improve the lives of everyday people. The company is renowned across the global south as notorious for poor work conditions, and union busting to the point of using terror tactics to quiet unruly workers trying to organize*. Just ask Ghay Portajada, who has been without her father Armando (who was president of the Coke worker’s union) since 1987 when he was abducted and never seen again.
*for more information on Coke’s global human rights violations: http://killercoke.org/
It is a combination of these factors that leads to today’s 4000 OFWs leaving the Philippines everyday:
The US came to the Philippines to create a cheap supply of raw materials (eg. sugar) and labour through the hacienda system. By supporting and enlarging the hacienda system (which is a semi-feudal system of landlord and serfs) the US created a economy dependent on cheap exports. This unequal political and economic system also requires large scale poverty. ”Requires,” because poverty is necessary in order for a feudal system, and for cheap labour, to exist (no one would choose to be a serf if there were better options).
Widespread poverty also helps to drive down the cost of labour for factories (like Coke’s). Violent union busting also helps to keep costs low. This violence is permissible (and necessary) because both the companies and the landowning elite who happen to also be the political class share similar interests. Should the companies be inconvenienced then the elites lose the source of their money and power.
So with all this being clear, the question that remains is ‘why?’
Why do people (including OFWs themselves) love this advertisement so much? Why does the clearly negative effect of Coca-Cola not translate, and instead they attribute a positive feeling to the ad and the product?
For this we will have to step back and examine the nature of modern advertising.
Think back to how ads looked in the early 20th century. Back then it was obvious. There are companies, there are consumers, and the companies had products that they wanted the people to purchase. So ads advertised the virtues of the product: its price, its value, its usefulness.
Coke began with advertising its health value (it was originally marketed as a medicine), then it advertised its taste and price point, and eventually this morphed into its advertising a lifestyle, a culture. The product became detached from what was marketed.
It all began with a man named Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew. He saw great value in his uncles studies into human psychology; he saw its value applied to wartime propaganda, and he rightly realized that it could be used in peacetime—for the benefit of corporations.
It was a time of great unrest. People were calling for greater fairness and social equity. Unions were mobilizing strong opposition to the status quo, and there was a need from the elites for a method to control the restless lower classes resulting from the industrial revolution.
Here is a clip from the excellent documentary ”The Century Of The Self” in it they explore Bernays immeasurable contribution to capitalist propaganda: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0OrT-8gXMs
Bernays was the man with the answer. He knew that through use of Freud’s theories you could manipulate thought, that it was possible to switch needs with desires in the minds of the people.
Out of this would come the political idea of how to control the masses: satisfying inner selfish desires made people happy and thus docile.
That thought has been central to this, and to be honest, most Coke commercials in the Philippines. Watch in these commercials how Coke links its product to hope, community, and charity:
In these ads Coke is giving and kind, just like the Filipino people. And yet the reality is vastly different. But we watch these ads and we feel good, we feel hope, and we attribute it (subconsciously, if not outright) to Coca-Cola.
On the surface the Coke OFW ad is a feel good tear jerker, dig deeper and it’s an insult to reality, to the people, and the people and organizations that actually do care about the plight of OFWs. In the end we feel good, but we are demoralized, and we are belittled.
If we are to look at this ad and honestly hear its message it would be: Coke cares enough about what you think of them that they mimed concern for OFWs—because either you, or at least someone you know is an OFW. And if we think Coke cares, then we will forgive them, or at the very least, maybe we’ll forget their complicity and just go with it, because everyone else is. And for OFWs it’s worse, because who knows better than an OFW how horrible it is to be separated from everyone you love?
All the while the reality of the company is bitter and dark.
So as I wrote to open this, “I hate this ad. I hate it with a passion.” It’s not because the ad isn’t good, I admit it is very well done. It’s because the reality of this ad, this company, and capitalist system that it serves works against the very thing it’s advertising: decency, justice, and the dignity of people.
Modern ads make us forget our true needs and replaces it with the feel good emptiness. So I ask you all now: what truly are your needs? What truly are your desires? And does this ad, does this world system in which we live, give you any hope of reaching them?
For example, the real desires of most OFWs is NOT to be reunited with the homeland, with their families—it’s that they didn’t have to leave in the first place.
We need to see that Coke and the system it represents is part of the problem: it helped expand and solidify the hacienda system and the powerful elite class that results from this semi-feudal system. It supports the top down relationship with Western powers, taking away Philippine sovereignty through semi-colonialism/imperialism.
There are people and organizations out there that truly care about the people. You yourself may be one of those people. They took your desires and appropriated them for themselves. See it for what it is: as yet one more insult to add to a long list.
*BAYAN (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan) is an anti-imperialist, multi-sectoral alliance struggling for true democracy and sovereignty in the Philippines.
*alex co-hosts a weekly radio program about Philippine issues on CHRY 105.5fm in Toronto [SUNDAYS, 9pm EST]. You can also listen around the world via the web: www.chry.fm
Add to the fact that Coke (and I believe, McCann Erikson, correct me if I’m wrong) basically just hijacked the viral hit “soldier’s homecoming" videos on youtube and subverted its purpose to sell sugar water.
Not only unoriginal but low. If they had wanted to do this right, they could have done with a bit more subtlety and maybe lose that bright red coke can on wheels.