‘Colonialist’ Christmas Coca-Cola ad leads to outrage in Mexico

Coca-Cola was forced to pull a commercial after it was criticized as offensive to Mexico’s indigenous people by consumers, media and human rights groups across the country.

The commercial aired as a part of the company’s Christmas marketing campaign, called “Abre tu corazón,” or “Open your heart.”

With the intention of breaking down stereotypes against indigenous people in Mexico, the ad depicted young white people bringing the gift of Coke to the Mixe community of Totontepec Villa de Morelos in Oaxaca.

“This Christmas a group of young people decided to give something very special…” the ad says in Spanish. The video starts with the unattributed claim that 81.6 percent of Mexicans feel rejected for speaking an indigenous language, and concludes with the words “We will stay united” in Mixe.

The special gift turns out to be a giant Christmas-tree-like Coke display in the middle of the indigenous village, admired by everyone while passing around bottles of soda.

The video quickly sparked outrage, with civil rights groups accusing Coca-Cola of encouraging rather than fighting stereotypes against indigenous people. TeleSUR describes the ad as a “painful metaphor of ongoing colonialism in the country: white kids storm the Mixe Indigenous community, as if a crusade, distribute coke bottles and build a giant Coca-Cola Christmas tree for all to idolize.”

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Activists even called for the company to be sanctioned by the government’s anti-discrimination commission, according to the Guardian.

In response to the accusations, Coca-Cola issued a rare apology for the ad.

“As part of Coca-Cola México’s Christmas campaign for this year the video ‘Mixe Community Totontepec’ was launched on digital channels, seeking to convey a message of unity and joy,” said Coca-Cola spokesman Luis Fuentes, according to the Daily Mail. “Our intention was never to be insensitive to or underestimate any indigenous group. We have now removed the video and apologize to anyone who may have been offended.”

And yet, critics have demanded further explanations from Coca-Cola and circulated parody videos, where indigenous people remind viewers that almost one-third of the Oaxacan community has no access to running water and that 2.8 million indigenous people have no access to health services.

“Coca-Cola is working on some genius colonial branding in Mexico with its out-of-touch, racist #AbreTuCorazon campaign,” one critic said, according to the Irish Times, while another asks why Coca-Cola didn’t have the people of Oaxaca sharing their culture in other countries.

The ad has also been criticized from a public health standpoint, according to another report from the Guardian, as campaigners from the country’s Alliance for Food Health say that indigenous people are “some of the most affected by Mexico’s soaring epidemic rate of obesity, which is fueled partly by high consumption of sugary soda drinks.”

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Mexico currently has the highest per-capita consumption rate of Coca-Cola in the world. According to Vice News, Mexico surpassed the United States in 2013 as the most obese country on Earth.

The indigenous Mixe community needs a plastic bottle cap tree as much as they need more sugar-ridden sodas in their diet. And Coca-Cola made a grave mistake when casting an all-white group of well-dressed, attractive teenagers, which quickly skewed their message into that of a tasteless colonialist narrative.

But while it is easy to point the blame finger at mega-corporation Coca-Cola, the intent behind the ad is undeniably a message of unity. The purpose is to foster respect for the indigenous people in Mexico who largely are marginalized by society, and 72 percent of whom live in extreme poverty. And like the video says, these groups are often isolated because of language barriers, which have negative consequences socially as well as in access to health care. Coca-Cola’s ad at least brings these issues into the spotlight – which can be a step in the right direction for a country with a notoriously racist and classist media landscape.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com