WAG NY – CHINA THE POWER OF CORPOATE BUCKS
As the Olympic torch travels across the globe
amid protests about China’s human rights record
and the recent crackdown in Tibet, one
quick-service giant and other companies upon
which the industry relies for products and
services are finding themselves caught up in the controversy.
McDonald’s Corporation, The Coca-Cola Company,
and Visa, among others, have shelled out millions
to attach their names to this year’s Summer
Games, slated to run from August 8–24 in Beijing.
As The Olympic Partner (TOP) sponsors, the
companies have exclusive marketing rights to this
year’s events, affording them use of Olympic
imagery for products, preferential access to
Olympic broadcast advertising, on-site concession
opportunities, acknowledgement of their
sponsorship through a recognition program, and
other benefits. Essentially, they have a window
to the billions of people in more than 200
countries worldwide that follow the games,
according to the International Olympic Committee’s web site.
But this year, in addition to that access, the
sponsors are also taking heat from human rights
organizations and others who say they should be
doing more to denounce China’s treatment of
Tibetans; the country’s close ties to Sudan,
where government soldiers have carried out the
widespread killing of civilians in the Darfur
region since 2004; and its dismal human rights record in general.
Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based organization
that conducts fact-finding investigations into
human rights abuses around the world, has had
meetings with Coca-Cola in attempts to convince
the company to use its stage as an Olympic
sponsor to address the human rights situation in
China, says Minky Worden, the group’s media
director. She says Human Rights Watch had hoped
the company would speak out against the limited
press freedom, forced evictions of Chinese
citizens prior to the Olympics, and crackdowns on
civil society in Tibet and the rest of China.
Even so, the company has thus far refused to take
a stand publicly on the issue.
In lieu of an interview for this story, Coca-Cola
provided the following statement:
“The Coca-Cola Company joins others in expressing
deep concern for the situation on the ground in
Tibet. We know that all parties involved hope for a peaceful resolution.
“While it would be an inappropriate role for
sponsors to comment on the political situation of
individual nations, as the longest-standing
sponsor of the Olympic Movement, we firmly
believe that the Olympics are a force for good.
Since 1928, we have supported the Olympic Games
wherever they’ve been held, and have witnessed
first-hand the cultural, economic and social
benefits they bring to the host city and country.
“We remain committed to supporting the Torch
Relay, which provides a unique opportunity to
share the Olympic values of unity, pride,
optimism and inspiration with people all over the world.”
Worden acknowledged that Coca-Cola made a point
of engaging Human Rights Watch in discussions
about the company’s stance but says the group is
ultimately disappointed with Coca-Cola’s decision not to speak out.
“In its corporate social responsibility policies,
Coca-Cola seems to be willing to take up these
issues, but in the face of abuses in China,
they’re proving to be less willing to act when
given the opportunity,” she says.
Human Rights Watch has sent letters to all of the
Olympic sponsors, including McDonald’s and Visa,
since September 2007 in attempts to convince them
to speak out about human rights abuses in China.
So far, the group says, none have acted on their
recommendations, though a meeting is scheduled
with Visa, which did not return calls or e-mails for this story.
When contacted for comment, McDonald’s issued the following statement:
“McDonald’s is proud of our long-time sponsorship
of the Olympic Games. We believe in the spirit of
the Games and their unique ability to engage the
world in a way that is constructive, positive and
inspirational. Our focus has been and will
continue to be on supporting the athletes, their
teams, and the power of the Olympic Games to
reinforce excellence, unity and achievement among people the world over.
“Concerning political issues, these need to be
resolved by governments and international bodies
such as the United Nations where they can most
effectively drive discussions, diplomacy and help speed solutions.
Dream for Darfur: “The window is closing when the
Olympics are over. We’re asking sponsors to raise
their voices about this genocide.”
“Regarding Tibet, our focus continues to remain
on the Games and the athletes, and we hope that a
peaceful resolution can be reached for all parties concerned.”
Dream for Darfur is another advocacy campaign
targeting Olympic sponsors to speak out against
China‘s policies. The group seeks to use the
Olympic Games as a point of leverage to encourage
the Chinese government to convince the Sudanese
government to allow United Nations peacekeeping
troops to enter the war-torn Darfur region. China
has been accused of continuing to support the
Sudanese regime even as civilians are killed in
the western part of the country.
“We have this one small window of opportunity in
which we can make a difference and get our
message across,” says Ellen Freudenheim,
corporate outreach director for the organization.
“That window is closing when the games are over.
We’re asking them to raise their voices about this genocide.”
Last year, Dream for Darfur issued a report card
grading each of the corporate sponsors on their
corporate responsibility responses to China’s
support of Sudan. McDonald’s received a C,
Coca-Cola was given a D, and Visa got an F.
Freudenheim says if the sponsors continue to
remain silent, she anticipates demonstrations at
their company headquarters. A separate campaign,
Turn Off for Darfur, is encouraging Olympic
viewers to turn off their advertisements during
the games if the sponsors take no action.
But Peter Shankman, founder of Shankman
Consulting, a marketing, public relations, and
crisis management firm based in New York City,
says despite the criticism they are receiving,
the sponsors are handling the situation as best they can.
“It’s the only thing they can do,” he says. “They
have put a fortune into this already. I guarantee
they’re not too happy about their sponsorship
right now, but at this point, to pull out,
there’s no way they could save face.”
The sponsors also have a vested interest in playing nice with China, he says.
“The Olympics will blow over in a few months,”
Shankman says. “What’s not going to blow over is
that China has billions of consumers.”
Moreover, Shankman says he doubts that the
sponsors will be significantly hurt by the protests and criticism.
“So far, nothing about these protests has shown
me anything that would make me think anybody is
going to be hurt at all,” he says.
So what does this have to do with quick-service restaurants themselves?
“I would imagine there’s going to be some promo
programs in some of those outlets leading up to
the Olympics,” says David Chapman, CEO of 919
Marketing, a North Carolina–based marketing
agency. “Fast-food restaurants are big on tying
into topical events, and they’re going to have to
think about that very carefully.”
He says pulling out promotions could be costly,
and sponsors and restaurants should have contingency plans in place.
But Paul Sickmon, president of Knox Sports
Marketing, a sports sponsorship management and
negotiation company based in Tampa, Florida, says
there’s no telling what could happen between now and the Games this summer.
“It’s too early to determine whether the sponsors
are going to react or should react,” he says. “We have to wait and see.”