Coca-Cola and the Exploitation of the Migrant Worker

Coca-Cola ad ‘Hello Happiness’, released 7th of May 2014

Coca-Cola has launched a new advertising campaign which features a ‘Hello Happiness Phone Booth’, a special phone booth that accepts Coca-Cola bottle caps instead of coins and which enables migrant workers in Dubai to connect to their family members in South Asia. Described by Coca-Cola as ‘a few extra minutes of happiness’, one bottle cap equates to a free 3-minute international phone call. The ad breaks new ground in that it directly addresses global economic inequality, the exploitation of low-wage labour and the hardship faced by millions of predominantly men trying to support their families in their homelands. Yet is it morally and ethically justified to focus on these aspects in the attempt to advertise a product?


In order to answer this question I want to analyse the ad in more detail. In the first instance, it is important to note that the ad has two very distinguishable parts. At a total running time of 2 minutes and 45 seconds, the first 45 seconds of the ad presents the viewer (e.g. the potential consumer) with a ‘problem’. The ad describes how migrant workers from South Asia arrive in Dubai in order to support for their families and provide for a better future for their children. In a series of brief statements, these men describe their hardship and their desire to speak to their family more frequently. The ad explains that the workers earn as little as $6 a day and that a one minute phone call can cost as much as $0.91. This ‘problem’ narrative is underpinned by a D minor piano soundtrack and various street scenes captured in slow motion. The ad purposefully taps into the aesthetics of documentary filmmaking by using a narrow depth of field, a handheld camera and a distinct focus on the workers and their stories underpinned by English subtitles. The subtitles in particular (or the relationship between spoken word and written text), seek to create an element of truthfulness or factuality which, in turn, creates a strong narrative foundation for the rest of the ad.


Once the ‘problem’ is very clearly established with quasi-documentary means, the second part of the ad, unsurprisingly, focuses on the ‘solution’. At this stage the ad gets more upbeat, the music is more positive, the colours are brighter, the cuts are faster. The ad uses various shots that establish the production process for the ‘Hello Happiness Phone Booth’: from concept and initial sketches to the final phone booth delivered to one of Dubai’s migrant worker neighbourhoods. This is the part of the ad where Coca-Cola firmly wants to establish itself as the social do-gooder, the corporate philanthropist, the global charity which so generously provides for those impoverished migrant workers. Intriguingly, this crude and transparent strategy seems to work: released on May 7th this year, the Youtube clip has already attracted more than one million views and the ‘thumbs up’ outweigh the ‘thumbs down’ by almost 20 to 1. In terms of marketing value, the cost for the ‘Hello Happiness Phone Booth’ and the cost of producing the ad has already paid for itself. Happiness indeed.

Coca-Cola ad ‘Make Tomorrow Better’, released 8th of May 2011. The Egyptian Revolution started on 25th of January 2011.

This ad is part of an ongoing development at Coca-Cola which is testing new territories in the area of marketing for several years now. Incredibly, at the height of the 2011 revolution in Egypt, Coca-Cola launched an ad called ‘Make Tomorrow Better’ which seeks to represent a new dawn for the country. This overtly pro-revolution ad contrasts with a more recent campaign from earlier this year titled ‘Security Cameras’. This ad consists entirely of faux surveillance camera footage capturing ‘happy’ moments caught on camera – not too dissimilar to the ‘happiness’ enabled by the ‘Hello Happiness Phone Booth’. My point is that these ads crassly attempt to create a feel-good factor with repeated emphasis on the word ‘happy’ or other positive associations such as ‘better’. The means to produce this effect are as diverse as the target markets they operate in: from revolutionary military juntas in Egypt, a nod to the surveillance state in Western democracies, or the destitution of migrant workers in the Gulf region.


Yet even a cursory look at Coca-Cola’s ‘solution’ in the ‘Hello Happiness’ ad throws up some major issues. Firstly, in order to use the phone the user needs to consume a bottle of coke in order to obtain the bottle cap. Let us assume that in Dubai a small bottle of Coke can be purchased for $1 (or one sixth of a daily wage): this would still equate to $0.33 per minute for a 3-minute phone call. By comparison, Skype charges $0.09 per minute for calls to, for instance, Pakistan. This cost reduces significantly in larger call bundles. If the ‘Hello Happiness Phone Booth’ provides international phone calls via the internet and through services such as Skype, a three minute phone call would cost Coca-Cola an absolute pittance. If that is the case, why could phone calls not be free of charge? The ad makers rationale speaks for itself: in order to be ‘happy’ (as facilitated through the ‘Hello Happiness Phone Booth’) the migrant worker needs to become a consumer first. Much like its many other ads, Coca-Cola is attempting nothing other to commercialise the notion of happiness.


The second major issue relates to the condition of the migrant worker himself. By definition, the migrant worker is exploited: the capitalist system exploits the wage difference between one country and another. Once removed from his homeland, the system also exploits the migrant workers’ vulnerability such as through confiscating his passport and thus restricting his freedom of movement. It is notable that the Coca-Cola ad does not refer to migrant workers actively traveling to Dubai for work, but rather, these men passively ‘arrive’ in the country as if their destiny is already out of their hands.


In the most extreme cases, as the preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in nearby Qatar have shown, the exploitation of the migrant worker has lead to nearly a thousand deaths by the Qatari government’s own admittance. Note that with eight more years to go, construction for the World Cup in Qatar has only just begun. Will visitors to the World Cup revel in the newly built stadia or will they mourn the hundreds upon hundreds of lives that were lost in building these? Most crassly for one of the most wealthy regions in the world, the highest proportion of these deaths were caused by, what is referred to as ‘sudden cardiac death’, or exposure to extreme heat and dehydration. The International Trade Union Confederation warns that 4,000 lives may be lost if work conditions are not rapidly improved. The face of the late capitalist system is brutally exposed: not even death on this scale will stop the production of a visual spectacle such as the World Cup.

Uncomfortably for Coca-Cola, the corporation is actually one of the biggest sponsors of the FIFA World Cup extending into 2022. In that regard, Coca-Cola is not just indirectly exposed to the exploitation of migrant worker in the Gulf region, it is actually underpinning this modern-day slavery through financial support to the FIFA World Cup. The extreme exploitation of the migrant worker is not a subject of ‘happiness’, but rather, it is a depressing reflection of the vulgar inequality caused by free market capitalism. The migrant worker, meanwhile, is exploited on numerous levels: his labour is exploited by an unequal economic system, his body is exploited for the sake of a spectacle, and finally – as is evident in the ‘Hello Happiness Phone Booth’ – his image is exploited in the pursuit of a cheap marketing trick.

Follow me on Twitter @MarcoBohr.

Like this Article? Subscribe to Our Feed!

4 thoughts on “Coca-Cola and the Exploitation of the Migrant Worker

  1. A charitable act is now an “advert opportunity”, with a payback, rather than an act with it’s own justification out of humanity. Spin is everything.

  2. FYI: this site is impossible to read from a mobile device due to a popup that fills the whole screen and cannot be closed.

  3. A fine clinical analysis that brings rare insight into the workings of trader’s mind to a lay reader. To commit the crime of selling an entirely unnecessary product, Coca Cola is committing more crimes by such selling gimmicks. I can visualize the workers at the agency that produced the ad rejoicing at their success in helping the global corporation to sell the ‘great’ product, a global ‘brand’, and making billions of dollars for their company in the bargain. Persons, even very intelligent persons, involved at various stages in the complex marketing operation remain cut off from the dishonest nature of their effort; the fact that they are aiding and abetting in creating want and selling useless trash. But, the top bosses of such corporations aught to continuously strive to pay back to the global community the hard earned money they are taking away from more important uses. They could give this facility, on a limited scale, for South Asian workers to call home free of charge.

Comments are closed.