Credit: DeusXFlorida via Creative Commons

Thank you, random brand

By Fred Bruce

The hypocrisy of multinational corporations and their political statements.

In case it somehow flew under your radar, on 6 January supporters of the then President of the United States Donald Trump attempted a coup at the Capitol Building to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Four years of Trumpian outrage and counter-outrage culminated in a wave of thousands crashing against Washington DC. It was an event that became something of a social media Rorschach Test: those on the left saw a rapid insurrection while those on the right called peaceful protest or false flag. For individuals, minds were made up immediately and declarations of condemnation or commendation quickly followed. Social media became as much of a battleground as the capital itself, with both sides making their beliefs firmly known.

Of course, the same could not be said for everyone. It was only once the dust had settled and the mob had shuffled home that the Brands™ threw their amorphous hats into the ring. One by one, corporations ranging from Axe body spray to multinational oil barons Chevron, came out to decry the failed insurrection as unconstitutional, undemocratic, and “not what it means to be American”.

At the forefront of this delayed reaction was Coca-Cola, who condemned the coup as “an offense to the ideals of American democracy”. Unsurprisingly, this sparked controversy. On the right, the conservative commentariat called for a boycott of the ubiquitous drink. Cries of “virtue signalling” and the ever-present (and ever nonsensical) “cultural Marxism” flooded the collective Twitter consciousness like coke in our arteries.

Despite how quickly the boycott fizzled out, credit has to be given that the right did raise some valid concerns on Coca-Cola’s “virtue signalling”. While much of the credit should go to the infinite monkey theorem, it is worth exploring the point further. No matter how easy it is to lump “virtue signalling” in with the right’s usual arsenal of meaningless neologisms (see also: “woke”, “political correctness” and “cancel culture”) in the case of Coca-Cola it’s difficult to call it anything else.

To “virtue signal” is ostensibly to express an opinion publicly for the sake of garnering societal approval, often with a hint or two of hypocrisy. With Coke, “a hint” does not quite do the immense hypocrisy justice. In 2003, the drink was faced with another boycott, this time spearheaded by global trade unions. This followed credible allegations of the company’s usage of paramilitary squads to threaten, kidnap, and kill union members in their Columbian factories. At the time, Adolfo Munera was the latest of nine individuals to have been assassinated in conjunction with Coca-Cola’s outsourced Latin American bottlers Panamerican Beverages. Munera’s death came after the high court ordered Coca-Cola to hire him back after false criminal charges against him had been dropped. It should be noted that Columbia is statistically the most dangerous country in the world for trade union membership – 2002 figures showed 184 of the 213 global confirmed killings occurred in their borders. This countrywide anti-unionism meant national media made little to no mention of the severe allegations, even while they were making minor waves in foreign news. The unions went to court in the States, but the case was dismissed due to the killings occurring outside of American jurisdiction.

In 2020, the United Nations Human Rights Committee decreed that Columbia had violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by refusing to investigate the political motivations behind Adolfo Munera’s death. Despite his murderer being sentenced to 17 years in prison, no state inquiry into the reasons for this assassination was ever carried out. The same story can be seen repeatedly in a brutal history that spans decades. In 1996, for example, two members of Munera’s union (Sinaltrainal) were killed by a paramilitary gunman at the same plant he worked. Or, there was the eerily similar murder of two of the union’s leaders in 1994. While small-fry politicians and local Columbian authorities have been sentenced in relation to these crimes, Coca-Cola has faced no repercussions, legal or otherwise.

Of course, this abuse of capital power is not limited to drink manufacturers. Coca-Cola joins such esteemed companies as banana-barons Chiquita and famed oil-spillers BP as corporations sued for their funding and hiring of paramilitary squads. Killings aside, you can even look at Nike’s lobbying to reduce sanctions on Chinese slave labour products as evidence of the omnipresence of businesses’ disdain for human rights. However, Coca-Cola’s involvement in these grotesque violations and the subsequent rehabilitation of their public image is especially endemic of our society’s loyalty to the almighty Brand. When The Coca-Cola Company openly denounces anything as “unlawful and violent” from atop their throne of dead unionists, it’s difficult to be anything less than appalled. The ubiquity of unpunished corporate criminality behind the mask of aesthetic messaging is arguably the primary take away from January’s attack. The deliberate choice to wait until the coast had cleared before issuing uniform statements of condemnation further underlines the inherently unfeeling nature of the Brand. Pride Month stands as another victim of the multinational co-opting of progress. When companies can paint rainbows with one hand and impoverish workers with the other, the concept is on the verge of losing its meaning.

By crying wolf so often, the right has (purposely or otherwise) eroded the meaning of virtue signalling into at best a platitudinal slogan, and at worst a bigoted dog-whistle. However, the law of probability states that eventually, the phrase has to be directed at something for which it actually applies. When the sprawling committee of lawyers, managers, marketers, and investors that form the Coca-Cola hydra issue their collective statement, “virtue signalling” is the kindest description. 


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