Coke, GE, J&J Fire Concurrent Shots at Critics

Experts: It's Unlikely Games Sponsors Planned Joint Response to Activists

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CHICAGO ( -- Olympic sponsors are finally speaking out -- but not in the way activists initially planned.

Groups that targeted sponsors over host country China's support of the ruling regime in Sudan now charge that the marketers are spending more time and energy coordinating against them than against genocide. "We've been asking them to work together against genocide, and they've responded by working together against us," said Ellen Freudenheim, director of corporate sponsor outreach, Dream for Darfur.

Coke CEO Neville Isdell

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The group drew rebukes from Coca-Cola, General Electric and Johnson & Johnson after giving 16 of 19 Olympic sponsors D or F grades in its most recent report card. The grades were based primarily on companies' reluctance to ask the Chinese government to pressure Sudan to stop the violence in Darfur, and, failing that, to appeal to the United Nations.

Coke CEO Neville Isdell fired the first shot in an April 18 Financial Times op-ed piece, calling the group's approach flawed. In a New York Times story a week later, a Coke spokeswoman sharpened the soda giant's tone, telling the paper, "For an organization that has not eased the suffering of a single individual on the ground in Darfur to criticize those who are helping thousands every day is more than ironic."

A marketer's role
In the same story, both J&J and GE criticized the group's criteria and, like Coke, highlighted their own charitable work in and around Darfur. All three marketers had previously maintained that pressuring China was better left to governments and aid groups, not marketers.

In the face of the continuing furor over the Olympic-torch relay and increased activism as the games approach, the simultaneous nature of the shift was striking. But a GE spokeswoman said that the similar sponsor statements were not coordinated. "Yes, we do talk, we do share and we do communicate, but at the end of the day the statement was ... GE's."

Coke and J&J declined to elaborate on their earlier statements.

Mark Hass, who runs Manning Selvage & Lee, which represents several major Olympic sponsors in China, said, "The response was no more orchestrated than the criticisms."

"The original protests weren't coordinated in the different cities. I don't think the Paris protest was organized with the London and San Francisco protests. It was just like-minded people taking advantage of the opportunity, and the sponsors had to respond."

"Everyone was asking [sponsors] the [same] question, calling up and asking, 'What are you going to do?'" Mr. Hass said. "If you ask 10 people in the same position the same question, you're likely to get the same answer. So I would be very surprised if it was organized, because when we work with companies who organize in coalitions, it takes a lot of time to figure out who's in charge and what they are going to do. Can you imagine what it would be like for 10 Olympic sponsors in 10 different industries to agree on anything, particularly on a public issue like this one?"

Ms. Freudenheim, however, said some of the sponsors' previous letters seemed to indicate a greater degree of coordination. When the group queried sponsors last summer, responses from Visa, McDonald's, Manulife and GE all featured similar formats and some duplicate language, she said.

As for the latest pushback, Ms. Freudenheim said it was possible it was a case of "spontaneous invention," or, maybe more likely, the companies taking a cue from Mr. Isdell's op-ed piece. Regardless, it does not seem likely to prevent future attacks. "We're furious," Ms. Freudenheim said.
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