Sponsoring Sochi Olympics turns into minefield for big brands

Continued controversy over Russia’s anti-gay laws and how they’re affecting the 2014 Winter Games have been an unexpected headache for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.

A few simple Google searches can tell you a lot about what people are thinking about this year’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. You don’t even have to hit the search button. For instance, if you type “why is Russia” into the search box, the second result in the autocomplete box is “why is Russia homophobic.” (Conversely, people have also repeatedly searched for “Putin is gay,” in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.) This year’s Olympics have been mired in controversy over Russia’s stringent law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” which has led to arrests of gay-rights protestors and the mayor of Sochi’s claim that no gay residents live there. The law has led to speculation about whether Sochi would allow gay people into the Olympic Village at all, though the mayor has said all visitors would be welcome if they follow the law. The public outcry over Russia’s anti-gay law seems to have come as something of a surprise to Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, both of which have sponsored the Olympics for decades. LGBT protestors have been dumping Coke into the street, and the company had to take down an interactive feature on its South African website which enabled fans to cheer athletes with messages on virtual drink cans. Activists began writing protest messages on the cans, and they soon discovered that words associated with homosexuality, including “gay,” weren’t being allowed. “Oops, let’s pretend you didn’t just try that,” an automated message would respond. “Please try another name.” A McDonald’s campaign was similarly hijacked. Its #CheerstoSochi Twitter campaign became a forum for the spread of information about protestor assaults and arrests. The #CheerstoSochi hashtag was even used to shame other Olympic sponsors, such as Visa. McDonald’s issued a statement in response to the online protests, after first stating that #CheerstoSochi should be about athletes, not politics:

We are aware that some activists are targeting Olympic sponsors to voice their concerns regarding the Russia LGBT legislation. McDonald’s supports human rights, the spirit of the Olympics and all the athletes who’ve worked so hard to compete in the Games. We believe the Olympic Games should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and athletes.

Coke offered a statement, too:

The name and message auto-generator on our South Africa “Share A Coke” website would not accept the word “Gay”, but did accept the word “Straight”. This isn’t how the program was supposed to work, and we’ve pulled the site down until we can fix the problem. We apologize for this mistake. As one of the world’s most inclusive brands, we value and celebrate diversity. We have long been a strong supporter of the LGBT community and have advocated for inclusion, equality and diversity through both our policies and practices.

The Huffington Post contends that statements like those may not be enough to mollify protestors who see any support of the Olympics in Sochi as tacit approval of the anti-propaganda law. “The backlash against such companies is probably only just beginning and will last long after Sochi,” wrote HuffPost Gay Voices Editor-at-Large Michelangelo Signorile, who also named Procter & Gamble—an official Olympic sponsor, and the largest advertiser on Russian television—a huge potential target of boycott for the Games.

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