Big fight, wrong context? Coke unleashes their inner Joe Frazier…into the playground.

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Coca Cola is using free market tactics in the social sphere. The result: it comes over as a bully.

Society has generally maintained quite tidy divisions between different facets of our lives. Politics and Religion seldom mix, and businesses are generally governed by the free market rather than by Government (save for a regulatory framework, and a a tax regime.)  These kingdoms of church, business and state operate by quite different methods and rules.

Increasingly, and in part due to social media, these principalities have begun to collide more frequently. For example advertising media have generally been the domain of business advertisers and these businesses (regardless of their politics, have traditionally steered clear of overt political advertising. They may send money to SuperPacs and lobby groups, but they don’t run adverts that say: “Chevrolet – supporting Obama for a better future.”

But what happens when political lobby groups start targeting business; and do so via those traditional advertising media?

That’s the dilemma that Coca-Cola has been in, in Australia. The issue is rubbish and recycling, and environmental groups and lobbyists have been advocating a real clean-up to the way Australia handles plastic rubbish. What they want is to put a deposit price on plastic bottles, for example, so that these are worth something – and won’t be simply thrown away as litter. After all, plastic litter is causing increasing damage to marine life.

Coca Cola doesn’t want this and advocates a softer option that does not involve their retail price. So game on.  Greenpeace put together this advertisement that names and shames the big red lobbyist. It has had around a million views on YouTube and Greenpeace had plans to run the ad on the major Australian networks. See it for yourself.

But none of the networks dared touch the advertisement, and Greenpeace accuse Coke of threatening the networks – using their sizeable ad-spend as leverage.  In these days of tighter media budgets, it isn’t easy to plea free speech and watch several million dollars revenue walk out the door.  I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is fair practice. Isn’t it just business?

But Coke have gone further – buying (with expensive bids) spots on social media so that every time an Australian looks up Greenpeace , well as you can see in the picture above, an advertised link appears telling the world what a fine option Coca-Colas recycling plan is.

To the news media (See this good piece from the Canberra Times) the actions amount to bullying tactics and the question is raised about the role of corporates once they enter the social media. Can they play by the same rules as they do in the mass media? Who owns this space? Have Google and Facebook commoditised all social space and changed the normal rules of conversation?

These days one might enter a conversation, via Facebook, and wish to talk to like-minded people about recycling. Now you can’t do that, apparently, without a company demanding to enter your face space and intrude in the conversation. It’s like meeting your friends at the cafeteria but then a Jehovah’s Witness joins the party – and starts handing out tracts. Is it acceptable behaviour?

One of the underlying problems is that the different rulebooks that applied to different principalities (church, politics, religion) have gotten blurred because all three kingdoms are claiming legitimate use of the social media. They each play by their own traditional rules – but the result is chaos, friction and conflict. The conviviality of the lunch table has been subverted because others are using it as a platform to do their business. You’ve met with friends, and as if the Jehovah’s witness is not interruption enough, there’s now a sales guy peddling cheap watches, and a political pressure group telling you why we need guns, as well as the loud moron who won’t stop yammering about other stuff altogether.

Social space?  Political space? Business space? Which is it?

While the rules evolve and get negotiated (much as the use of mobile phones soon came loaded with some accepted etiquette of do’s and don’ts) we are going to see some ugly scraps. The GreenPeace – Coca Cola stoush has brought out the ugliest side of the beverage firm, and regardless of their environmental politics, they are now coming over as a corporate bully simply because they are applying the law of the advertising jungle to the domain of social media.  They have unleashed their inner Joe Frazier, not in the ring, but in the playground.

What planet are they operating on?

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