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Olympic Sponsors Were Warned About Sochi; Now McDonald's and Coca-Cola Are Having a PR Nightmare

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Coca-Cola has been forced into the closet regarding its sponsorship of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. It has shut down an interactive feature that allowed people to put messages on Coke cans cheering the Olympic athletes. The scrapping of the feature comes days after LGBT activists hijacked the campaign, urging people around the globe to use the cans to highlight messages about Russian anti-gay brutality and what activists view as Coke's demonstration of its tacit lack of concern about Russia's anti-gay laws by sponsoring the games.

That happened a couple of days after Coke saw its iconic 1971 commercial featuring singers wanting "to buy the world a Coke" re-edited by Queer Nation NY, going viral, with images added showing Russian security officials and police brutally cracking down on LGBT protestors.

McDonald's, meanwhile, has surrendered a hashtag meant to cheer on American athletes, #CheerstoSochi, which was taken over by LGBT activists. It's been used by people around the world -- translated into Japanese, German, French and Russian -- to highlight Russia's repression and the McDonald's Corporation's sponsorship of the Sochi games. Ronald McDonald has been turned into an icon of hate, while Procter & Gamble is being accused of supporting a different kind of cleansing than its soaps and detergents advertise. And there is much, much more to come.

Olympic sponsors were warned. Last August the Human Rights Campaign urged the Olympic sponsors to take specific actions in light of Russia's "gay propaganda" law. The group listed actions the companies could take, including very clearly condemning Russia's anti-gay law, putting pressure on the International Olympic Committee, supporting the Russian LGBT community publicly and putting "marketing and creative advertising resources to use -- helping to build awareness and demonstrate support for LGBT equality in Russia and globally."

The companies did virtually nothing. And in The New York Times today both Coca-Cola and McDonald's responded to the ensuing PR nightmare by continuing to offer only tepid support for "human rights" while glaringly failing to slam Russia's anti-gay law.

What's clear from the companies' initial responses to the social media campaigns -- thinking they could fight off the activists, only to completely cave -- is that the sponsors had no idea what the consequences would be when HRC warned them. The first warning sign should have been last summer's launch by LGBT activists of the boycott of Stolichnaya vodka. People argued about the merits and whether or not Stoli was actually Russian, but that was all beside the point: The campaign went international, a shot across the bow, raising the issue of Russia's brutality dramatically.

Soon after, it became more widely known that Procter & Gamble, in addition to being an official Olympic sponsor, is the largest advertiser on Russian television. Then came the details of just how much the Olympic sponsors and the International Olympic Committee could have done to stop the Russian anti-gay law, passed last June after having worked its way up through provinces since as far back as 2006. In an interview last August, Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told me how the companies had tracked the law from its inception, years ago, much the way that HRW had. They had ample time to put the pressure on Russia or simply get out:

This piece of legislation worked its way up through the legislative system. The International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, the so-called top corporate sponsors -- Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble -- these companies all, as [HRW] did, tracked the progress of this law. ... [I]f any of the Olympic stakeholders, the sponsors who are literally paying for the Games, or the International Olympic Committee, the U.S. Olympic Committee or the other Olympic committees, if they weighed in on this, I don't think this law would have been signed by Putin or passed by the Duma. If they had leaned on [Russia] before the law was signed, it would not have been signed. That is absolutely true.

LGBT people are not having it anymore. And apparently American multinational corporations had not realized that. They can offer their nondiscrimination policies, domestic partnership benefits and sponsorship of Pride events in the U.S. as evidence that they care about LGBT rights, but that's no longer enough. With the Winter Olympics in Sochi, LGBT activists are making it clear that American companies can no longer get away with tacitly supporting foreign regimes that are brutalizing LGBT people. The backlash against such companies is probably only just beginning and will last long after Sochi.

Update on January 28: The Coca-Cola Company released a statement today in response to the controversy surrounding its "Share A Coke" website. It reads in part:

"...The name and message auto-generator on our South Africa "Share A Coke" website would not accept the word "Gay", but did accept the word "Straight". This isn't how the program was supposed to work, and we've pulled the site down until we can fix the problem.

We apologize for this mistake. 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, equality and diversity through both our policies and practices."

Read the full statement here.

Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msignorile

 
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