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Share a Coke with profanity

2019-02-21 05:00

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While laughing all the way to the bank, Coca-Cola paused to take advantage of the most vulnerable, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.

As part of their global "Share a Coke" marketing campaign, 700 000 Coca-Cola cans and bottles were adorned with 700 of "South Africa's most popular names".

Somehow, the Xitsonga word for vagina – not its euphemism, not some popular moniker and not some disguising modern slang – but the word itself, in all its grotesque and forbidding crudeness, made its way into the list of South Africa's most popular names! A huge outcry followed, not only amongst the speakers of the language but among South Africans in general.

In their feeble apology, Coca-Cola South Africa, pointed out that this was an isolated incident, and that there was only ever one single Coke can on which the profanity was printed. If the company is to be believed, this happened at the request of a single consumer at one of the "Share a Coke" activation centers, where consumers can order their own personalised Coke cans. Apparently, the same consumer then went on to spread a picture of the offensive Coke can on the social media, which is how the picture went viral.

READ: The Coke 'vagina' can is real - but you won't find it in stores

But how and why did a globally acclaimed campaign, invented by Coca-Cola Australia in 2011, come apart in South Africa nearly a decade later? So successful was the "Share a Coke" marketing campaign, that by the end of the 2011 summer some 250 million personalised bottles and cans had been sold to 23 million Australians.

At the heart of the "Share a Coke" campaign is the idea of personalisation – the emotional power of seeing one's name prominently displayed on the product of one of the world's oldest brands.

Sixty-something odd countries later, the #ShareACoke campaign bus came roaring into Mzantsi. The distinctive South African flavour to the campaign was not merely to display prominent South African names and surnames on Coke products, but to plug into an old little South African problem; the inability of the minority to correctly pronounce the names of the majority, if you catch my drift.

So the MALULEKE Coke two-liter bottle, came with the pronunciation guide, MAH-LOOH-LEH-KEH. Brilliant, thought Coca-Cola South Africa. But that was before it poked insult not only at speakers of the Xitsonga language, but at all women and all South Africans.

As a speaker of all 11 official South African languages, I am not aware of a single of those languages, for which the inscription of the word for vagina would be celebrated – not even the available euphemisms would be acceptable. Nor am I aware of any South African language in which the word for vagina also doubles up as a name or surname.

Risk of profanities long foreseen

Two pieces of irony attend to this by the Coca-Cola gaffe. They relate to Coca-Cola's "good intentions" to contribute to social cohesion on the one hand, and the fact that the risk of profanity being smuggled into the "Share a Coke" campaign, was long foreseen.

Surely, the printing of profanity is not one of the best ways to promote social cohesion! Similarly, it is quite mind-boggling that nine years into a global campaign in which the malicious insertion of profanity and the challenges posed by social media were flagged as some of the biggest risks, Coca-Cola South Africa still fell, rather easily, for the trick

The words of one of the architects of the original campaign in Australia, Jeremy Rudge, are worthy quoting at some length:

"We knew people would want to publish profanity and abusive language, so we had to put filters in place. We came up with a 'block list' of over 5 000 words our printers literally could not print and the sign could not display. Getting there was a pretty funny process. We had some very senior people in a room literally brainstorming swear words. Not surprisingly, more than half of all texts sent were rude words we couldn't use, so the profanity filter worked."

Granted such a "block list" of swear words is easier to compile in a largely mono-lingual country like Australia. Australian aborigines may not agree to the unqualified description of Australia as a mono-lingual country. Nor is it unreasonable or impossible to compile such "block lists" in a country like South Africa which has 11 official languages, constitutionally. It is certainly not impossible for one the oldest and most successful brands in the world to mobilise the necessary resources to prevent the encroachment of profanity in such a campaign.

Given all these cushions as well as rings and bells, how did the misogynistic profanity slip through the filters of Coca-Cola? What is the responsibility of the company – global and regional – now that its advertising campaign has turned into a campaign of insult and misogyny?

Refusal to learn lessons

Apart from attempting to trivialise the offense caused, in their Twitter apology, Coca-Cola seemed to refuse to take direct responsibility for this offensive incident. In the world of social media, it is irrelevant whether one or two or three Coke cans were printed with the offensive word. Nor is it enough for Coca-Cola simply to join the queue of the shocked and the dismayed.

There would have been no Coke can that became viral on the social media if Coca-Cola did not allow its printing in the first place. In all its responses so far, including an email I received from one of its marketing executives, Coca-Cola seems unwilling to learn anything from this episode.

ALSO READ: No more freebies - Coke is ending promotion events after 'vagina' can incident

Nine years into a global campaign, Coca-Cola has no valid excuse for spewing profanity upon South African society. It is no accident that the profanity demeans women and Africans, and does so in an African language – some of the most dehumanised groups on Earth and in one of the most at-risk languages on earth. We live in a time when women, African people, African languages and African countries can be vulgarised (and brutalised) with impunity.

In all societies, the commonplace, recurrent, seemingly random and accidental vulgarisation, seemingly harmless gaffes and the brutalisation of members of vulnerable groups are not random and never accidental. It is no accident that women get raped and beaten and killed more often and more severely than men.

When Rodrigo Duterte, president of Philippines recently advised his soldiers to "shoot women in the vagina" so as to render them "useless" he was not just making an eccentric personal joke, he was articulating the logic of a global social system. The same applies to US president Donald Trump's "grab 'em by the pussy" and "sh*thole countries" statements.

While laughing all the way to the bank, Coca-Cola paused to take advantage of the most vulnerable. So, when the definitive book about the most successful Coca-Cola marketing campaigns in the 21st century is written, the world will remember the considerable success of the "Share a Coke' campaign. Surely, nobody will care to remember the small matter of the Coke can, emblazoned with an offensive and misogynistic seven letter word, in a "remote" African language, spoken in some far-flung "sh*thole country"!

As a speaker of 'that' language, a citizen of 'that' country, and a loyal Coca-Cola consumer, I will certainly never forget.

- Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is a research fellow at the University of Pretoria's Center for the Advancement of Scholarship. Follow him on Twitter: @ProfTinyiko

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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