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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.
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.
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
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.
profanities long foreseen
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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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