Coke defends itself against 'anti-Islamic' smear campaign

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CAIRO--The Coca-Cola logo, a U.S. icon, has come under attack in recent weeks in Egypt.

Printed flyers and e-mails have been circulating rumors around Egypt that the 106-year-old logo insults Islam.

The campaign urges a boycott based on claims that if the label of a Coca-Cola bottle is turned toward a mirror, the logo reads -- in Arabic script -- "La Mohammed, La Mecca.'' In English, that translates into a denial of the Muslim prophet Mohammed and of the holy Saudi Arabian city of Mecca.

"It's a crazy thing, and it's affecting the Egyptian economy," says Mahmoud Hamdy, external affairs manager for Coca-Cola Egypt, who points out the company employs more than 10,000 Egyptian workers.

Mr. Hamdy says he believes the Coke conspiracy campaign migrated by e-mail from Saudi Arabia, where similar rumors cropped up last year. A Saudi government council ultimately decreed no evil designs lay behind the Coke logo, he adds.

In Egypt, Mr. Hamdy insists the boycott campaign has not yet cut into the company's estimated 54% market share. Coke has not launched an ad campaign debunking the anti-Islamic theory, he says, but it has sought out the help of the press to counter the rumors.

"Positive media coverage gives us more credibility," says Mr. Hamdy.

Coca-Cola Co. has also sought positive feedback from a top Islamic leader, Egypt's Grand Mufti, Nasr Farid Wassel, who recently issued a fatwa -- or religious opinion -- that nothing blasphemous could be read from the logo.

But Cairo resident Mahrouz Abdel Aziz, for one, is unconvinced. A one-time Coke enthusiast, Mr. Aziz, 42, has banned the drink from his house since his son returned from school with a flyer to boycott the product. Now, Mr. Aziz says, he only drinks Egyptian tea.

Copyright May 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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