Coca Cola’s Happiness Booths in the UAE: What’s not to like?

Coke capsThe Internet is abuzz again. This time, it’s a Coca Cola CSR campaign wots got knickers all twisted.

Essentially, labourers – millions of whom power the UAE’s construction activity in exchange for a rather dubious quality of life – got to chuck Coca Cola bottle caps into bright red “Happiness Booths” to make international calls to friends and family.

Here’s the video featuring the campaign. It's gained quite some traction. Oh, the feels. Many feels.

But then Buzzfeed became a killjoy, calling the campaign a wretched thing to do to indentured labour. Some people called out that piece.

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 3.01.35 AMOthers were still not convinced. Judicious dismay was expressed about the dubious health benefits of Coke, whether the workers had to pay for Coca Cola to use the machine, and the overall mendacity of actually trying to boost profit while trying to do good.

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First, let’s clarify that this campaign a thing of the past. It’s over. It’s done. As this helpful article in The National will tell you. The campaign wrapped up on April 21st 2014. It’s just that the Internet was a bit tardy in getting its indignation on.

But onto those harrumphing about matters ethical. I think we’ll put together an FAQ to help everyone just get along. I like economics. And this makes economic sense. Onwards, then:

a) Coke is just using this as a marketing opportunity.

Quite. But Coke is a business. Its main duty is to its shareholders. Blame Friedman for this. No, not the moustached one that rambles senselessly over at the NYT but economist Milton Friedman who first postulated this obligation to shareholders.

If Coke wants to contribute to anyone’s welfare, it needs to show returns. In fact, any company engaging in CSR needs to show shareholders some positive business impact. Such as goodwill. Or visibility. Or the miles of PR this campaign is generating.

b) Surely the workers weren’t asked to buy Coke?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Doesn’t matter. That 134,484 minutes of international calls were logged means it was cheaper than the alternatives – patchy calling cards, or the tender mercies of du or Etisalat. No matter where the caps came from, or whether the Coke bottles were offered for free. Given international call rates (around AED 3.5 a minute, I reckon), workers could buy a Coke, pour it down the drain, make a call and still be economically better off.

c) This is worker exploitation!

Coke isn’t in the construction business. It might be an exponent of the same capitalism that keeps wages low and construction booming, but it isn’t directly responsible for worker conditions, poor or otherwise. In fact, the Happiness Booth made workers better off from an economic viewpoint. Cheaper calls are better than more expensive calls. End of story. No matter if you have to buy a Coke to do it. And it’s not clear that workers did.

d) But workers can’t afford Coke.

Perhaps, but nor can they afford the exorbitant UAE telecom rates our duopolists charge to call across national borders. Again, if it works out cheaper to call home, it makes economic sense. Utilitarian theory at its finest.

e) But Coke wins from this cynical ploy!

Yes. But actually, everyone does. Workers get to make calls cheaper than normal. Coke gets publicity and free PR. And possibly more drinks sold. Its spokespeople get to make pithy statements about functional emotional needs yadiyadiya. People with liver complaints get to be outraged. Newspapers got to write columns. Scribblers like me get to make FAQs and drive blog traffic. Name one party that was actively made worse off in this entire exchange.

f) Coke should have targeted some other demographic.

It already does. In a million ways. And in fact, it’s still doing it. This campaign made labour camp tenants better off temporarily. But they’re not the main target audience. Face it: this campaign is aimed at the lot of us that are standing around discussing this online, offline, everywhere.

g) But isn’t this a marketing exercise disguised as a charitable initiative?

Still better than a marketing exercise disguised as a non-charitable initiative. What’s to discuss?

In the interests of transparency: I have nothing to do with this campaign. Not even remotely. I just like being garrulous. And right.