Coca-Cola Bows to Believers

Regnum.ruA Coca-Cola fridge with an upside-down Orthodox church in Nizhny Novgorod.
Coca-Cola has called off a promotion after offended Orthodox believers lodged a complaint with prosecutors, a sharp reminder of the cultural pitfalls that foreign companies face when doing business abroad.

Hoping to tap into a growing tide of patriotism, the U.S. beverage giant had placed pictures of religious sites together with its logo on fridges in kiosks and shops in Nizhny Novgorod, the country's third-biggest city.

In mid-December, a group of Orthodox believers sent an angry letter to the Nizhny Novgorod prosecutor's office, the local bishop and the regional governor complaining about the promotion, which it claimed was blasphemous.

Some images, the authors of the letter said, portrayed religious sites upside down, including the cross. An inverted cross is said to represent a mockery of the Christian cross.

"In line with our internal policy of responsible marketing ... we have decided to withdraw the images of religious objects and not to use them in the future," Coca-Cola spokeswoman Yana Guskova said Tuesday.

Guskova maintained that the promotion had not intended to cause offense.

"This was an initiative using famous Russian historical sites and images to try to promote Russian cultural heritage and the idea that we need to preserve it," she said.

All the pictures contain an outline of a Coca-Cola bottle with a photograph of a local religious site, such as a cathedral, captured inside it. The slogan "The Value of Tradition" runs up the side of the fridge, while the Coca-Cola logo dominates the other.

Orthodox church representatives said, however, that Coca-Cola had ridden roughshod over cultural sensitivities. "Large corporations have to take into account the local context, particularly the Christian context," said Mikhail Prokopenko, spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate. "[Coca-Cola] didn't recognize the boundaries."

The Orthodox protesters said in December that Coca-Cola should face formal charges for "inciting religious hatred." But Prokopenko urged restraint, and said, "Both sides are at least now listening to each other, thank God."

Irina Monakhova, a spokeswoman for the Nizhny Novgorod prosecutor's office, said investigators were conducting an inquiry into the claims at the request of the residents and would make their findings known by the end of January.

Coca-Cola has run similar -- but not so overtly religious -- promotions with refrigerators in St. Petersburg, Ufa and Kazan without any problem, Guskova said.

Advertising slip-ups, while not uncommon, are often accidental in Russia, said Donald Tursman, creative director at the advertising agency TWBA in Moscow.

"In Russia, most clients are very conservative. They avoid drawing too much attention to their brands. It's why most ads are bland and formulaic," he said. "If there is even a chance that an ad will cause a stir, they won't run it."

In contrast, he said, some Western advertisers "intentionally run controversial ads because they know the media will talk about it."

"It's free exposure," he said.

Mobile-phone retailer Yevroset, owned by maverick entrepreneur Yevgeny Chichvarkin and Timur Artemyev, is one Russian company that is no stranger to controversy. On at least two occasions, it has been scolded by the authorities for alluding to -- but not spelling out -- swear words in its advertising.

A promotion by electronics giant Eldorado for a discounted vacuum cleaner was similarly controversial. Its billboards showed a woman vacuuming. Below the picture, a slogan read: "I suck for kopeks!"

Of course, there are also the unintentional victims of their own success. Mobile TeleSystems, the Russian mobile phone giant, became the brunt of jokes when it adopted an egg as its logo a few years ago. The egg represents a certain part of the male anatomy in Russian slang, as Vedomosti was quick to note after the launch.

And who could forget the Aeroflot elephant? Aeroflot, the country's flagship carrier, adopted an advertising campaign that featured a flying elephant in 1997, an image that did little to improve its reputation as a battered relic of the Soviet era.

Coca-Cola might be said to have gotten off lightly.