Hey, have you seen the latest Coca-Cola Olympics ads? The soda behemoth is trying to emphasize its commitment to sustainability these days, so a common theme is attempts to recycle an empty bottle—two old men racing down the sidewalk, feet flying up behind them as though on skates, trying to be the first to pick one up and hand it to a woman emptying the recycling bins; a waiter, pirouetting around the room as if ice dancing, scooping one up and twirling over to the receptacle, a janitor sweeping one across the office before depositing it with a slapshot. They’re clever little ads—as well they should be, with all the money Coca-Cola’s paying for the privilege of slapping an Olympic theme on them.
Odds are good you haven’t seen them, though. That’s because they’re Mandarin-language ads made exclusively for the Chinese market—the only market, the company told the Wall Street Journal this week, in which Coke is running an Olympics ad campaign this year.
Like many other Olympic sponsors pressing the brakes on their domestic advertising this year, Coca-Cola is keeping silent on its reasons for letting its nine-figure Olympic sponsorship deal go to waste in the English-speaking world. (The company did not respond to a request for comment for this piece, nor has it opened up on the subject to other outlets.)
Explicit or not, the strategy is hard to mistake: The Beijing Olympics are shaping up to be a public-relations disaster for companies trying to straddle both U.S. and Chinese markets. The human rights abuses the Chinese government is perpetrating toward the predominantly Muslim Uyghur people, which the U.S. last year termed a genocide and Human Rights Watch has labeled crimes against humanity, hang as a pall over the Games. The U.S. and several other Western countries have opted for a diplomatic boycott.
The fraught situation has placed the Olympic sponsors—the 13 companies that shell out the most eye-popping piles of cash to fund the Games—in a real bind. Ordinarily, the Olympics are as bankable a cash cow for brands as any other sporting event—more so, when you consider the event’s peerless visibility around the globe. From Albania to Zimbabwe, the Games are synonymous with traits any brand would love to be associated with: youth, vigor, beauty, endurance, excellence. Thus the monster payouts to secure exclusive licensing rights.
“The Olympics is the best opportunity for them to connect on a world stage with a very large audience, especially for these multinational corporations,” Dr. James Blair, who teaches sports marketing at Eastern Kentucky University, told The Dispatch. “They’ve got these very large brands, and for them to be able to connect with and be associated with the Olympics, which is considered the most premium prestige sporting event in the world, also raises their profile and keeps other brands from attaining that image.”
But those exclusive contracts, it turns out, can be a double-edged sword. Any company without a preexisting Olympics relationship might look at the controversy surrounding the Beijing games and decide simply to save its advertising dollars for better days—the 2024 Paris Games aren’t far away! For the sponsors, though, even beyond the sunk cost of the exclusivity rights themselves, there’s no way simply to slink out of the spotlight. They can’t remove themselves from the political question, because either remaining a part of or ducking out of the Olympics would be to make a political statement.
And when it comes to China, as every multinational corporation knows well, some political statements are a lot more expensive than others. The more China’s economy has grown, the more lucrative a market it has become for multinationals to invest in, and the more economic leverage Beijing has enjoyed as a result. In recent years, the Chinese have flexed this leverage to establish a remarkably effective heckler’s veto: Companies that offend the sensibilities of the Chinese Communist Party, in big or small ways, quickly find themselves subjected to financial punishment, from additional regulatory scrutiny to state-media-encouraged boycotts to, in extreme cases, being frozen out of the market entirely.
China, the companies rightly surmise, would likely consider joining a U.S.-backed boycott of the Games over human rights concerns a major infraction. Even small corporate acknowledgement of the accusations of human rights abuses have provoked uproar in China recently: Just last month, the chipmaker Intel faced China’s wrath for asking its suppliers not to source their supply chains to the Xinjiang region, where the abuses against the Uyghurs are alleged to be occurring. Intel publicly apologized and revised the letter to avoid mentioning Xinjiang by name.
So companies like Coca-Cola—which, by the way, has faced its own accusations of making use of forced labor in Xinjiang and in 2020 lobbied against a bill to punish companies that did so—find themselves in a bizarre situation: They’ve determined that the financially optimal play is to keep partnering with the Beijing Olympics, but to do so with as little of the miasma surrounding these particular Games as possible sticking to their clothes afterward. It may be the world’s first example of companies devising their marketing strategy around trying to ensure people think of them as little as possible. Some of the sponsors, along with some enthusiastic partisans of the Olympics themselves, argue that focusing on these matters is beside the point of the Games, which are supposed to be about setting aside politics to focus on pure international athletic competition. “It has been our policy not to get involved in certain political issues,” the luxury watch brand Omega said in a statement to the New York Times, “because it would not advance the cause of sport in which our commitment lies.”
Dr. Lisa Delpy Neirotti, who teaches sport management at the George Washington University School of Business, is both a scholar and a superfan of the Olympics: She’s done academic research on their history, attended 20 consecutive Games, and currently teaches in the International Olympics Committee’s executive masters’ program. Neirotti suggested to The Dispatch that sponsors shouldn’t come in for criticism simply for maintaining their sponsorships. “I want to emphasize that the sponsor money really does support athletes. There’s a lot of hoopla that goes into all this, but when you think about $3.4 million per day distributed by the IOC to athletes from around the world, that’s a significant amount of money, and that money comes from corporations. … Here in the United States, our government doesn’t support athletes, our government doesn’t support the U.S. Olympic Committee. We rely on citizens’ donations, as well as corporate support.”
Some human rights groups, however, scoff at the notion that an international event in China can hold itself above the politics of the region.
“The Olympics have always been political,” Peter Irwin of the Uyghur Human Rights Project told The Dispatch. “From a more abstract point of view, when you hear people saying that something is not political or that it shouldn’t be political, you should take that as political—apoliticism is a choice. You choose to be non-political in a situation.”
“I’m not saying that Coca-Cola should necessarily pull out or take some kind of radical step,” Irwin went on. “I understand they have their own interests. But at the same time, they have done nothing, right? They have done absolutely nothing. They haven’t said a single word. I don’t think it’s a political statement to make to say, ‘hey, we’ve seen these reports, these really concerning reports, whether they’re true or not.’ … So they won’t do it, of course, because they don’t really care about this. There’s the fiduciary responsibility to investors, and they care about profits. It just comes down to money, essentially.”
As China’s hold over the speech of U.S.-based but multinational companies has grown, so too has the domestic backlash. During a hearing last summer, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton clashed with Paul Lalli, Coca-Cola’s global vice president of human rights, repeatedly trying to get him to express an opinion on the treatment of the Uyghurs. The closest Lalli got: “We’re aware of the reports from the State Department on this issue, as well as our other departments of U.S. government. We respect those reports that continue to inform our program, as do reports from civil society.”
At the very least, the fact that Coca-Cola is holding back its domestic ad dollars ahead of the Olympics suggests one comforting thing: The company is eager to prevent bad feelings about their ideological deference to the Chinese government to continue percolating around the United States. How much of that pressure will be required to make companies think twice before bending the knee remains to be seen.