June 20, 2021 Abdul Haqq

Have a Coke and a Smile: Corporate Slave Branding

“Slave branding is the process in which a mark, usually a symbol or ornamental pattern, was burned into the skin of a living slave… The brutal and harsh act was performed both for identification purposes and as a form of punishment.” [1]

Although this barbaric physical act of disfiguring another human may be a thing of the distant past, successive forms of corporate branding have progressed into more pervasive and concealed forms of subjugation that occasionally result in psychological harm. Perhaps the most recent example to emphasise this assertion was the withdrawal of tennis star, Naomi Osaka, from the French Open, with her citing mental health issues as the reason for doing so. The reaction was swift and mixed:

“Veteran Sports Illustrated tennis journalist Jon Wertheim wrote that there was “disappointment and even anger” at the outcome, saying that it could be “a watershed moment” for the sport’s attitude to mental health.” [2]

Underscoring the affront felt by major tennis corporations and their associations, one only has to look at their reaction:

“’The four majors got together – something they famously don’t do often – and released a harsh, even menacing and humiliating statement, essentially threatening to ban her.” [3]

Fortunately, on this occasion there was overwhelming empathy and support for Osaka due, in part, to the prevailing climate and focus on mental health. Indeed, why should the treatment of sports personalities and celebrities be any different, particularly in view of the intrusive media spotlight that invades most aspects of their lives? The predictable counter narrative is that such celebrities have made such life choices and are recompensed handsomely for it, so they should simply ‘shut up and dribble.’[4] However, such attitudes belie or at the very least diminish the fact that many celebrities increasingly use their status to draw attention to legitimate grievances affecting not only themselves (i.e. #metoo movement etc.) but also global issues like human trafficking, global warming etc.

“Agua!” – ‘It’s the real thing!’

Arguably the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo not only shut up, dribbled and scored to become the European Championship’s all-time leading goal scorer,[5] he also proceeded to wipe $4 billion off Coca-Cola’s share price by a simple act of distancing strategically positioned bottles of the non-alcoholic beverage away from him. [6] This was as symbolic as much as it was a rejection of a long established but (in)conveniently ignored reality: Coca-Cola is not good for your health and is antithetical to healthy lifestyles, let alone sport. In contrast, water – ‘Agua’ – is healthy. To confine Ronaldo’s gesture to that pivotal moment alone is to deny the wider implications of such an act. In fact, it is further evidence of celebrities claiming – owning – their own narrative, in contrast to corporate dictates. Paul Pogba followed suit in a subsequent press conference, albeit for a slightly different reason (his faith) when he removed a bottle of Heineken, as alcoholic beverages are prohibited in Islam. Indeed, on this occasion, it reached the part other beers could not reach, being placed under the table and appropriately out of sight. Undoubtedly, alcohol is an unsuitable source of hydration for sport (or almost everything else for that matter).

Sadly, sport will continue to be an arena in which non-participants’; fans’, media, politicians’ etc. expectations of personalities and teams are such that anything beyond entertainment is deemed unsportsmanlike and detracting from their initial responsibilities. Referring once more to the current Euros 2020 tournament, we only have to consider the jeering from a small but significant section of fans when teams kneel symbolically (taking the knee) to demonstrate solidarity against racism.[7]  The perception that these athletes are there solely for our entertainment is reminiscent of ancient Rome and gladiatorial sport:

“Most gladiators were slaves. They were subjected to a rigorous training, fed on a high-energy diet, and given expert medical attention. Hence they were an expensive investment, not to be despatched lightly.” [8]

Unfortunately, many of today’s celebrities appear to have accepted and embraced an exploitative relationship with corporate entities, which only serves to exacerbate the predicament for counterparts insistent on reversing this trend. Reference should be made in this instance to basketball legend, Michael Jordan, who was accused of facilitating the commoditisation of racial segregation:

“Before slavery was abolished, all slaves were considered property, and each had his or her own price. The 13th amendment to the Constitution decreed that, “…all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free” (The Emancipation Proclamation).

Although this amendment was passed well over one hundred years ago, African Americans again are being bound into slavery. This slavery, however, is much more progressive and arguably more detrimental to society than the traditional form of slavery that we associate with the Emancipation Proclamation; today’s slaves are black athletes that are falling victim to the commoditization of their personas. African American athletes such as Michael Jordan are increasingly being exploited to market shoes, clothing brands, sports drinks, and even batteries.” [9]

The article continued:

“The worst part about Jordan’s commoditization of his persona is that it is consensual and the athletes involved are coerced into seeking these endorsement deals because of societal pressures. Jordan is a prime example of an athlete that has commoditized his persona in order to profit off of the public’s interpretation of what the “ideal” athlete’s character should be.” [10]

Coke isn’t it

Returning to the multibillion-dollar giant that is Coca-Cola, a $4 billion loss in anyone’s calculation is usually considered catastrophic; however, the company barely batted an eyelid – metaphorically speaking of course – because the amount was considered relatively insignificant in comparison to its overall value:

“The company’s share price dropped from $56.10 to $55.22 almost immediately after Ronaldo’s gesture, a 1.6% dip. The market value of Coca-Cola went from $242bn to $238bn – a drop of $4bn.” [11]

Such dizzying wealth has been acquired amidst previous disputes regarding the purity  of the beverage and accusations of contamination:

“Coca-Cola and PepsiCo sold soft drinks containing pesticides harmful to human health and misled India’s 1 billion people over claims that their products were safe for human consumption, Indian MPs concluded yesterday…

Tests by campaigners showed Pepsi’s soft drinks had 36 times the level of pesticide residues permitted under EU regulations and Coca-Cola’s had 30 times the level. The CSE said that, in all 12 of the soft drinks it tested, toxins including lindane and DDT were found. If ingested over long periods, these chemicals could lead to cancer and failure of the immune system. Similar tests on US colas found no such residues.” [12]

Conclusion: ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…’

It should be clear that despite the impact of Ronaldo’s gesture – significant within a microcosmic context – little, if anything, will change in the way large corporations continue to exploit resources, both human and otherwise. Why would they alter existing strategies of success? It is for us as consumers to consider, not whether we want to be exploited – as many of us apparently welcome such a prospect if it provides varying degrees of self-gratification – but to what extent? From sports personalities to politicians, we witness almost daily, the exploitative practices of corporations vying to increase market shares even if it is to the detriment of its customers. The tragedy of the founder of Coca-Cola should suffice as a cautionary tale against addiction, narrated to consumers as they ignore health warnings surrounding the corrosive nature of this unhealthy beverage. Both father and son, John and Charles Pemberton, were addicted to morphine; however, the former wanted to create a beverage to make people happy. He died of cancer in 1888, poor and plagued by addiction, leaving his son the remaining shares in the company until his untimely passing 6 years after his father.[13] Whether they died content or not is somewhat irrelevant when considering the likely elation of today’s shareholders:

“Coca-Cola marketing executive Wendy Clark once wrote of the man who invented the beverage: “a pharmacist who wanted to create an elixir that would give people a moment of refreshment and uplift, a moment of happiness.”

Clark stays true to the brand’s message that Coca-Cola wants only to “make the world happier…”[14]

Whether utilised for refreshment or descaling bathroom enamel, one thing must be certain; having a coke and smile could end up being a health hazard when dentistry is required to repair or replace rotten teeth. Will we be joyously singing along with the Coca-Cola theme tune at that stage? Indeed, it might sound more like mumbling with dentures, but at least we will be happy, won’t we?

“I’d like to build a world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves

I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company

I’d like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace throughout the land

That’s a song I hear
Sing it along
Let the world sing today
Over and over

I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
La, la, la, la
To, do, do, do, do, do
La, la, la…”




[1] Jones, J: ‘Branding of Slaves: Brutal Act Used for Identification Purposes and Severe Punishment,” Black Then, 8th February 2020: https://blackthen.com/branding-of-slaves-brutal-act-used-for-identification-purposes-and-severe-punishment/

[2] Elbra, T: ‘World Reacts to Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from Roland Garos amid media spat,’ nine.com.au, 31st May 2021: https://wwos.nine.com.au/tennis/naomi-osaka-withdrawal-french-open-roland-garros-reaction-to-bombshell-decision/32619ac9-d9ab-4605-9d7c-9467407995f9

[3] Ibid

[4] Sullivan, E: ‘Laura Ingraham Told Lebron James to Shut Up and Dribble; He went to the Hoop,’ NPR, 19th February 2018: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/19/587097707/laura-ingraham-told-lebron-james-to-shutup-and-dribble-he-went-to-the-hoop

[5] Agence France-Presse: ‘Euro 2020: Cristiano Ronaldo breaks goalscoring record as Portugal beat Hungary,’ First Post, 16th June 2021: https://www.firstpost.com/sports/euro-2020-cristiano-ronaldo-breaks-goalscoring-record-as-portugal-beat-hungary-9720541.html

[6] Australian Associated Press: ‘Cristiano Ronaldo snub wipes billions off Coca-Cola’s market value,’ The Guardian, 16th June 2021: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2021/jun/16/cristiano-ronaldo-snubs-coca-cola-billions-wiped-off-drink-giants-market-value

[7] Sports Staff: ‘England fans boo taking of the knee before first Euro 2020 game against Croatia,’ The Independent, 13th June 2021: https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/england-boo-knee-croatia-euro-2020-b1864989.html

[8] Gladiators: https://www.google.com/search?q=gladiators&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en-sa&client=safari

[9] Mediakron: ‘Michael Jordan: Commoditizing Racial Segregation,’ https://mediakron.bc.edu/profiles/michael-jordan Accessed on 21st June 2021

[10] Ibid

[11] Australian Associated Press: ‘Cristiano Ronaldo snub wipes billions off Coca-Cola’s market value,’ The Guardian, 16th June 2021: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2021/jun/16/cristiano-ronaldo-snubs-coca-cola-billions-wiped-off-drink-giants-market-value

[12] Ramesh, R: ‘Soft-drink giants accused over pesticides,’ The Guardian, 5th February 2004: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/feb/05/india.randeepramesh

[13] Howard, K: The Quiet Tragedy Behind John Stith Pemberton and the Invention of Coca-Cola,’ All That’s Interesting, 12th March 2017, updated 8thAugust 2019: https://allthatsinteresting.com/john-pemberton

[14] Ibid

‘[15]I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’: https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=i+like+to+teach+the+world+to+sing&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

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