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Columns Tom Baxter

Coke, woke, catches flack from a new direction

By Tom Baxter

If you were channel surfing and missed the first few seconds of the new ad slamming Coca-Cola and its CEO, James Quincey, you might think it came from some lefty consumer organization — “poisoning America’s youth and worsening the obesity epidemic” — or maybe a group of activist investors — “years of dismal sales… terrible 2020 results.”

Actually, it’s the product of a right-wing group which is also targeting Nike and American Airlines. Coca-Cola and American Airlines have opposed Republican voting legislation in Georgia and Texas, and Nike signed a letter opposing state laws banning transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports. The three companies’ CEO are all named in the ads.

“Start serving your customers, and not woke politicians,” the anti-Coke ad says.

The ads claim these big corporations are “getting political,” as if business and politics formerly operated at a pristine distance from each other. Anyone who has spent time at a state legislature, a city hall or a county zoning board knows how ridiculous that idea is. Most of what government does is business, and business plays close attention to how government does it.

What has changed is the way business, government and customers — many of whom are also voters — intersect. More than is generally recognized, this has a lot to do with the changing way businesses relate to each other.

Last week, there were protests at a Nashville hat store which was selling patches with the Star of David and the word “unvaccinated,” a la Marjorie Taylor Greene’s assertion that vaccinations “passports” were “just like” the Nazis forcing Jews to wear a gold star during the Holocaust. Much more damaging, from a hat store perspective, was an announcement on Twitter from the Stetson hat company that it was pulling its goods from the store.

The same thing might have happened a couple of decades ago, but it would have happened more quietly. Businesses traditionally shun controversy, but in the age of social media they have been compelled to be more public in the way they distance themselves from negative associations.

“Capitalism as we know it is evolving,” is a motto of Engine No. 1, an activist investment firm which last week was involved in a dramatic example of this change in business-to-business relationships.

Against the strenuous objections of the company’s executives, ExxonMobil’s shareholders elected at least two directors committed to action on climate change from Engine No. 1’s slate of challengers. The vote was suspended at one point as company officials desperately tried to turn the tide, and the results of the elections for two other seats on the board still haven’t been announced.

When you put things that way, it might conjure visions of riled-up, Jimmy Stewartesque “investors” storming the gates. But the shareholders we’re talking about here are the big investment houses and mutual funds, and the nation’s largest pension funds, which gave Engine No. 1 key support in its effort to shake up the oil giant. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, is also reported to have voted with the dissidents, reflecting a growing nervousness over how climate change might affect the stability of the economy.

Many of these financial giants also allied with the Dutch shareholder activist group Follow This to force Chevron’s board to go further in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The measure passed by 61 percent. To make last Wednesday a truly terrible day for Big Oil, a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its carbon emissions by 45 percent over the next decade.

In the case of Exxon Mobile and Chevron, the activists were able to convince big-money investors that the oil companies’ resistance to environmental changes was also affecting their bottom line. They argue that to be financially successful today, companies have to assume a broader range of social and environmental responsibility. This has spawned a new acronym: ESG, for environmental, social and corporate governance.

Ideas like this were bound to face blowback from the right, and as a result, companies like Coca-Cola are being attacked by conservatives for many of the same offenses that liberals have complained about in the past. That, too, comes with doing business in this day and age.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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15 Comments

  1. Frederick Armayor June 1, 2021 12:19 am

    Coca Cola, a once a stable household name has learned to use its size as a bully pulpit for the ‘Woke’ and ‘Progressives’;however, as a result they have turned me off and all ‘Coca Cola’ products have been placed on the danger list. Their officers can brown nose the CCP officials, cozy up to the new progressive woke crowd but they have lost my business. Sold family CocaCola stock and abstain from all their products. I feel sorry for their employees but their officers deserve to rot in their ‘Wokeness’. Perhaps later on, the investors may correct the company’s misdirection..Report

    Reply
  2. Norman June 1, 2021 4:28 am

    Corporations used to be involved in politics greasing palms and ensuring legislation favored their industries. This is not the same as meddling in state elections in order to affect the lives of their consumers. And, no, Jimmy Stewart stood up for the little guy in his movies. This is pure progressive pandering.Report

    Reply
  3. Dale Schiering June 1, 2021 10:50 am

    I am 73 years old. As a young man my parents counseled me to never discuss religion or politics with customers to avoid alienation. Big business and celebrities should follow this advice. Hell will freeze over before I willingly buy Coke, fly American Airlines, or attend a Lakers game.Report

    Reply
  4. Nina June 1, 2021 12:20 pm

    I applaud these companies for recognizing that the tide is changing. Old stuffy attitudes must adapt to current consumer desires. The backlash the companies are facing are just the wretched drawing their last breath before the final nail in the coffin of their “olden days” is placed. Bravo.Report

    Reply
    1. Grundoon June 21, 2021 3:11 pm

      You are a marketing genius. It is always a very wise marketing move for a corporation to alienate half its customer base.Report

      Reply
    2. Rich August 22, 2021 8:20 pm

      Spoken like a true sheep. It’s a stuffy attitude when white people are being demonized by big corp? Keep staying ‘woke’, while us intelligent humans thrive off the truth.Report

      Reply
  5. Buzz June 1, 2021 3:59 pm

    Stopped buying Coke products at their first political comment… there are consequences for stupid remarks.Report

    Reply
  6. Darcy joiner June 1, 2021 11:18 pm

    Shame on you coke! Will never buy another coke product againReport

    Reply
    1. Rich August 22, 2021 8:23 pm

      Same here. Pepsi was always better anyway.Report

      Reply
  7. Peter Piper June 2, 2021 8:29 am

    Nina, when progressive ideas have us eating out of dumpsters you will beg for the good old days. Just ask a VENEZUELAN.Report

    Reply
  8. Kryss Howard June 2, 2021 1:48 pm

    I was disgusted by Nike when they encouraged Americans to kneel for the national anthem which is treason therefore me and my family refuse to buy or wear any Nike products then when I found out that Coca-Cola was bashing white people my family and I will never again buy or wear or drink a coca cola product. I am a Republican American and I am white and I will not be ashamed for either. #stopthemaddnesdReport

    Reply
  9. Wormser Hats June 7, 2021 1:06 pm

    Conservatives wet themselves with glee with SCOTUS in Citizens United determined that corporate and special-interest money is tantamount to protected free-speech in political campaigns.

    …until they get a sudden fit of righteousness when it’s not free-speech with which (so-called) conservatives agree.

    Over 2,000 years proselytizing and they still can’t find the log their own-eye.Report

    Reply
    1. Rich August 22, 2021 8:26 pm

      So to YOU, it is perfectly fine that Coca-Cola is openly racist to white people? If this is a left/right battle, just take a look at the Blue cities and states, they are total garbage dumps. Now look at the RED cities and states, thriving more than ever. Get a clue.Report

      Reply
  10. YOUR MOMMA June 14, 2021 12:14 am

    WINNER/WHINER OF BIG WORDS….PLEASE GO FIND A BETTER COUNTRY YOU CAN POLLUTEReport

    Reply
  11. Joseph June 16, 2021 6:04 am

    I drank at least 2 bottles of coke a day for 20 years. I will never buy another coca cola product as long as I live. and haven’t for several months. I do not give my $$$ to ANY corporation who supports the ethic cleansing of me and my family, I also threw away all of my Nikes, will never go to McDobnalds again, or like I said, no company that supports BLM….No one single dollar, as long as I live. Disney is the saddest, as I have kids. I am not part of any group at all or discussed this with anyone. I just have more than 2 braincells. What is it going to take for WOKE people to get the ******* message: “STOP JUDGING PEOPLE BY THE COLOR OF THIER SKIN. EVERYBODY DESERVES TO BE JUDGED BY THEIR CHARACTER, ACTIONS, AND VALUES. STOP ATTACKING OUR NATIONS CULTURE AND HERITAGE, WITH YOUR WEIRD SHAME AND DELUSIONAL REVISIONIST HISTORY”. It’s bad enough getting lectured about how unfair and unjust America is by multi multi millionaires who play a child’s game and occupy the highest place in our society. But corporations and the US govt….lecturing us about “racism” “sexism” and “morals”. Now THAT is a laugh. Having sold our country to our communist enemies, bombed poor defenseless brown people for a century, sacrificed our children for wars based on lies and false pretense, operating extrajudicial torture sites around the world. using literal slave labor in china today, stealing trillions of dollars, and betraying every american value in addition to showing no basic decency. Yeah…ok Coke….thanks for taking a break from poisoning children with your overpriced chemical sugar crap and spreading diabetes and obesity to billions of people to let me know you think my country is not ethically up to your standards. It is completely astonishing the madness that is occurring. I’d die before I cave to this bsReport

    Reply

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