Coke and Schadenfreude

Feb. 10, 2022

Why Coke deserves to fall on its face with its Olympic sponsorship.

For much of my adult life, I’ve struggled with schadenfreude – joy in the suffering of people whom I dislike, or who do foolish or annoying things. It’s a churlish emotion, but one I’m finding harder and harder to avoid, especially as the pandemic drags on.

The latest temptation comes from Coca-Cola’s unfolding fiasco as an Olympic sponsor.

The Winter Olympics currently being held in Beijing are, by all accounts, the worst in recent memory. Television viewership is down nearly 50% from the last Winter Olympics, in 2018. China’s draconian COVID measures mean the athletes must live and compete inside a bubble, with minimal interaction with others. Those who test positive for COVID are subjected to lockdowns; they have complained of being completely isolated, given next to no information, and being served inedible food.

And there’s the overweening ugliness of the whole thing. The outdoor events usually are completely walled off by the kind of large plastic screens you usually only see at construction sites. They’re being conducted almost entirely on artificial snow, because apparently not enough of the real thing is around. One snowboarding venue was plopped down in the middle of an empty and hideous industrial area, dominated by a decommissioned coal-fired power plant. This led talk show host Jimmy Kimmel to remark that the events are being held on fake snow, in front of a symbol of the climate change that necessitates the fake snow.

Which brings us to Coca-Cola.

Coke has been a major sponsor of the Olympics, winter and summer, for generations. But even before the first athlete arrived in Beijing, Coca-Cola started feeling the negatives that come from doing business with one of the most authoritarian, repressive major countries on Earth.

The U.S. government, which declared a “diplomatic boycott” of the Games, pressured Coca-Cola and other sponsors to pull out. Coke is staying; it’s been doing a full publicity blitz in China, with promotions, giveaways, etc. But at home, it’s a different story. As the Wall Street Journal puts it: “Coke, like other sponsors, is all but silent on the Olympics in the U.S. this year.” There are no Coke cans with Olympic logos, no commercials during TV coverage, no trips by top executives to Beijing.

Now, of course China can’t help some of the circumstances that are making these Games such a drag. But the ugliness there goes deeper. China has long been notorious on human rights, with arguably the most egregious case being its abusive treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority. In what the Journal describes as “a tense exchange” at a congressional hearing, Coca-Cola’s “global head of human rights” would offer nothing more on the subject than some “we respect all human rights” eyewash.

Yes, China is a huge market that can’t be ignored. But neither can the abuses of its government. Doing business in China means unavoidable entanglement with that government, more so than in other places. Sponsoring an event like the Olympics deepens that entanglement.

As Americans become more indignant over what’s going on in China, companies who choose to associate themselves with China might very well end up getting tarred by some of that indignation. Good. If you do business with the devil, expect your clothes to pick up a little odor of brimstone.