Just as oceans unfailingly rise every year, Coca-Cola continues its ongoing reign as the world’s largest plastic polluter, responsible for three million metric tons of plastic packaging in 2019 (Tigue). Meanwhile, Coca-Cola convinces consumers that the company cares about the environment, using a well-developed advertising strategy known as greenwashing. Greenwashing assures consumers that “Earth-caring” corporations “pursue” environmental initiatives when those same corporations couldn’t care less and wreak havoc on the planet. However, as companies lie about their behavior, consumers stop holding those companies responsible for their actions, and the corporations’ harmful behaviors continue. Coca-Cola surpasses talking about action in its advertisements; instead, the “green” billboard launched in the Philippines in 2011 shows Coca-Cola actively reducing air pollution. This “green” billboard promotes purchasing bottles of Coke by displaying an image of an eco-conscious Coca-Cola that appeases consumers’ worries about the corporation’s environmental impact. However, this superficial message, apparently encouraging optimism and action, is an inefficient project that falsely shifts the blame for ruining the environment onto the consumer.
The local audience of the “breathing” billboard is drivers on Epifanio de Los Santos Avenue (EDSA) in Manila, a highway in the capital of the Philippines that is infamous for heavy traffic and air pollution. The daily traffic of 360,000 vehicles contributes to Manila’s dangerous air quality, a hazard responsible for four thousand deaths annually. In early 2020, the average concentration of particulate matter exceeded the safety limit of 10 μg/m^3 by 7.6 μg/m^3 and exceeded it by 28 μg/m^3 during the peak of rush hour (“Manila Gets Its Skyline Back”). Coca-Cola’s advertisement, which specifically addresses Coca-Cola improving air pollution, targets drivers stuck in traffic, surrounded by a haze of particulate matter. Due to their surroundings, some of these drivers are inevitably concerned about pollution, so Coca-Cola’s hopeful advert is there, showing the company cares about the issue and works toward a solution. The locals are familiar with the corporation as Coca-Cola’s bottling operation in Manila is one of the largest in the world and has been producing in the Philippines since 1912 (Davao). But instead of being familiar with its detrimental effects, Coca-Cola’s propaganda manipulates them by claiming that it cares about them and their environment. Coca-Cola furthers this image by protecting local freshwater sources around the globe through a longstanding partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (Heater).
While Coca-Cola pursues some initiatives that display well on its website, selling as many bottles of Coke as possible is Coca-Cola’s sole priority. The giant, centered silhouette immediately captures the eye of highway drivers, and the classic red Coca-Cola logo at the top left is the second image people see when they begin “reading” the ad. Consequently, the combined visual of the Coca-Cola brand on the bottle pops into people’s minds; the enticing, refreshing drink dances in their heads. Coca-Cola recognizes consumers already enjoy and purchase its product, so this advertisement addresses environmental concerns. Viewers associate the delicious Coca-Cola with expansive greenery and care for nature due to the creative medium of real plants. By utilizing these plants, Coca-Cola is seemingly aware of the world’s current environmental issues and working towards a brighter future. The panda WWF logo ensures people connect these two very different organizations that supposedly work together towards this future. This “collaborative partnership” gives Coca-Cola’s portrayal of progress credibility. The approximate symmetry of the advertisement leads the WWF and Coca-Cola logos to play the same role on opposite sides of the ad, showing how the organizations theoretically have an equal role in the billboard project. By equating these organizations, Coca-Cola places itself on the same level of environmental stewardship as the WWF. Coca-Cola also ensures anyone confused about the function of plants is informed that Coca-Cola’s altruism helps the Earth by stating the obvious: “This billboard absorbs air pollutants.” The Coca-Cola symbol lives in the most important upper section of the advert, a place representing “happiness and triumph.” The lower region, usually reserved for “heaviness, sadness, constraint, or threat,” shows action through which Coca-Cola confronts the world’s issues (Flip). Optimism, an essential part of Coca-Cola’s “live positively” campaign, replaces both the generally negative, lower section of the ad and thoughts of the harrowing impacts of pollution. Encouraging people to “live positively” associates Coca-Cola with an eco-friendly, happy, positive lifestyle (modeled by the miniature smiley face), providing people an opportunity to rid themselves of their carbon-footprint-sin by trusting in the green company of Coca-Cola. Consumers easily trust companies that tell people the lies they want to hear; consumers like snatching up products and blindly trusting that they were manufactured in an eco-friendly way.
“Coca-Cola helps save the planet with WWF.” But do YOU help the planet? Successful greenwashing shifts the responsibility of environmental stewardship from the companies creating poor air quality to the people who breathe it. According to the president of Coca-Cola Philippines, Guillermo Aponte, the “green” billboard is “a salient reminder for Filipinos to take an active hand in protecting and saving the environment” (Heater). Coca-Cola’s billboard proclaims the company “saves” the planet, so consumers are guilt-tripped into believing the planet must suffer because of them, not Coca-Cola. By making people believe they are the ones who must change their behavior, “inspiration” is merely a tool for deflection. Consumers are partially responsible as they purchase harmful products — like plastic bottles, but the corporations that create the culture and products themselves shape these purchasing decisions. Some people misguidedly think the company saves the Earth from the consumers; they are blinded from the reality that Coca-Cola does barely anything to save the planet from Coca-Cola. Finis Dunaway, an environmental history professor at Trent University, agrees,
The disconnect between the severity of the climate crisis versus so much focus on these little actions [like recycling or picking up litter], that not only distract from corporate responsibility, but also don’t seem to [make] a difference – it’s trying to encourage a feeling of empowerment, but I think it sometimes can actually be disempowering (Park).
Coca-Cola’s ad targets people who think superficially, incorrectly villainizing themselves and seeing the true villain as a hero. Logical reasoning protects consumers from this disempowerment, but most consumers avoid discrediting their suppliers. They believe the corporation’s falsehoods while also fearing the implications the truth has on their purchasing choices. Simple arithmetic reveals that Coca-Cola’s priorities lay not in helping the environment. The Fukien tea plants covering the billboard absorb 46,800 pounds of carbon dioxide annually (Heater). But Coca-Cola’s emissions amounted to 5.18 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2021 (Tigue). Offsetting one year of Coca-Cola’s emissions requires over 221,367 “green” billboards. Instead of cultivating plants on a raised piece of metal, Coca-Cola could grow many more plants in the ground. Each plant has its own pot, made of recycled plastic bottles, and there is a complex, timed irrigation system in place that waters each plant —”a network of valves, pipes, tubing, and emitters” (Heater). While the high-tech systems convince consumers that Coca-Cola is a techy and efficient company of the future, whom smart, educated people should support, avoiding this unnecessary trouble and creating an expansive garden would be much more beneficial for the planet.
However, this use of space makes sense considering Coca-Cola doesn’t care about the environment outside of its advertising. The corporation’s compassion and charity vanish behind closed doors:
Coca-Cola spent $4.24 billion on advertising and marketing in 2019…while spending just $11 million that year on a program to clean up rivers polluted by plastic waste. And a leaked recording of a recent American Beverage Association conference also revealed that Coca-Cola had quietly lobbied for decades against policies like bottle bills, which aim to hold companies responsible for the plastic waste they create (Tigue).
While this advertisement is unforgettably unique, it is also extremely dangerous as it perpetuates the culture that allows companies’ continued abuse of the environment. Before Coca-Cola sponsored the recent COP27 climate conference, a letter signed by 240 environmental organizations expressed their disapproval: “The world’s largest plastics polluter…should not be allowed to buy their way out of culpability for a crisis they have caused” (Tigue). A vicious cycle exists when large companies have so much money that they silence public outcry through manipulative propaganda just to make more money, which is then used for further manipulation. Charities, like the World Wildlife Fund, face a dilemma when they want millions of dollars from Coca-Cola, but know the company’s image is damaging. Ultimately, the WWF choses funding instead of greenwashing prevention. Companies creatively deflect blame or claim that their destructive behavior isn’t the issue so they can continue profiting from it. The “solution” of recycling is another example of “industry executives promoting an idea they knew wouldn’t work…all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.” Recently, chemical recycling has been condemned as a “false climate solution” (Tigue). Companies do not care if climate “solutions,” from recycling systems to billboards, are scientifically false because gaining the trust of the public solves their immediate problems. As long as Coca-Cola strategically convinces thirsty Filipinos that it cares about the Earth, the planet can burn later.
Danielle del Valle. “World Wildlife Federation.” Pinterest. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/227150374931560641. Accessed 21 2022.
Davao, Edge. “Coca-Cola Launches ‘Live Positively’ Drive.” 11 October 2010, https://edgedavao.net. Accessed 19 November 2022.
Flip. “Reading Images: A ‘Sight-Reading’ Key.” AP Language & Composition, 2 November 2022, Ravenscroft, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1FsBFumdprl6XPZFB2lQuu4MJ WpldvAHw/view. Accessed 22 November 2022. Class handout.
Heater, B. “Coca-Cola’s Green Billboard Consumes Carbon Dioxide Like So Much Sugary Soda.” Engadget, 6 July 2011, https://www.engadget.com. Accessed 19 November 2022.
“Manila Gets Its Skyline Back As Air Quality Improves amid COVID-19 Lockdown.” Mongabay, 23 April 2020, https://news.mongabay.com. Accessed 21 November 2022.
Tigue, Kristoffer. “Coke Sponsoring COP27 Is the Definition of ‘Greenwashing,’ Activists Say.” Inside Climate News, 25 October 2022, https://insideclimatenews.org. Accessed 19 November 2022.
Park, William. “How Companies Blame You for Climate Change.” BBC, 5 May 2022, https://www.bbc.com. Accessed 19 November 2022.