Protesters of U.S. corporations’ sponsorship of the Sochi Olympic Games are using Twitter to voice their concern. LGBT rights groups are angry that large corporations are sponsoring the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. That country is embroiled in an increasingly visible public relations dilemma; mostly due to its recent anti-gay legislation. Companies that are unprepared for such controversy find that sponsorships are a major public image problem. Companies hate to be seen as unsympathetic as it alienates consumers.
With the advent of social media, grass roots movements garner a large amount of attention for their causes. This often culminates in boycotts and lost revenue for the company.
LGBT rights groups initially targeted McDonald’s. The fast food giant launched a twitter feed with the hashtag #CheersToSochi.com, which was meant to send supportive messages to the athletes. Activists flooded it with tweets, challenging the company’s sponsorship of the games.
After McDonald’s canceled its Twitter campaign, Queer Nation NY activist Scott Wooledge openly hijacked the CheersToSochi.com concept by starting his own social media campaign, CheersToSochi.org. Wooledge states that taking over the conversation on sites like Twitter and Facebook is an effective way to get sponsors’ attention. He believes companies like McDonald’s have ignored online petitions with similar demands for far too long. Many of those protests having hundreds of thousands of signatures.
Activists also criticized Coca-Cola for what they believe is ambivalence toward homophobic laws and violence in Russia. Queer Nation NY revised the famous 1971 commercial for Coca-Cola in which singers on a hilltop want “to buy the world a Coke.” The revision includes scenes of protesters in Russia being attacked for demonstrating against the country’s recent anti-gay legislation.
Activists have complained about Visa Corporation, tweeting “Use @Visa for your Bail”, along with a photograph of Russian police arresting a protestor.
The sponsors have directly responded to accusations of passive support. All three corporations have made public statements, stating their companies’ dedication to fairness and inclusion.
Becca Hary, McDonald’s director of global media relations, wrote in an email to Nation’s Restaurant News that the her company respects everyone’s freedom of expression. #CheersToSochi is simply a way to show support for U.S. Olympic athletes and nothing more. McDonald’s stated on its own Twitter page that “#CheersToSochi is about sending Olympians messages of good luck. We support human rights and all athletes.”
Coca-Cola also responded to the protest. Company president Katie Byrne stated “We’re a brand that has always been about inclusion and diversity,” said in a telephone interview on Monday. “We’re convinced, as we talk about Coke standing for inclusion, it’s the best way to go.”
Visa’s chief brand officer Antonio Lucio echoed McDonald’s statement that his company firmly believes in the Olympics’ ideals, which include tolerance and diversity.
Indignant people calling for boycotts of corporations is neither new, nor limited to one sociology-political segment. Conservative and liberal groups alike have utilized this tactic. However, social media gives protestors a broad and increasingly loud medium. Marketing consultant Avi Dan points out well that the real strength of social media controversy is that it is often amplified into established media. McDonald’s has been an Olympic sponsor for the past 10 Games. Yet, even a longstanding powerhouse is vulnerable to popular, well publicized criticism.
By Ian Erickson