The Scarlett Johansson-SodaStream-Oxfam Car Crash

When a car crash happens, it is very hard not to look at it. Consider the recent brouhaha over the actress Scarlett Johansson’s TV advertisement for the Israeli bubble-water-machine-plus-flavor-capsule company SodaStream, which was aired in connection with the US football extravaganza known as the Super Bowl, and led to her rupture with the UK-based humanitarian charity Oxfam. For me, this was a multi-vehicle collision. It was impossible not to stare at it (via the Internet), despite — or perhaps because of — the injuries experienced by everyone involved, including innocent bystanders. (Click to read the news story on BBC)

In fact the incident involved not just a collision of famous personalities and conflicting interests. It provided a rare moment where great issues and challenges on the world stage — issues that normally seem overwhelmingly large and abstract — came together in a small, human-scale drama that nearly everyone could relate to.

Let’s start with the players (or drivers, I want to keep the car-crash metaphor going). Scarlett Johansson is, well, a Hollywood phenomenon, the closest thing our generation has produced to Marilyn Monroe, but with a higher IQ and — judging from her projections in the media — a better grip her business affairs. As an ambassador for Oxfam, she put her beauty, allure, and intelligence to work for a humanitarian cause. As a spokesperson for SodaStream, however, she put those same qualities to work on the opposite side of a hard-drawn line in the sand, in the eyes of her other employer Oxfam, because SodaStream has a factory in the occupied West Bank.

Oxfam objected. The dispute went public. Acrimony ensued. Johansson quit Oxfam. Tweets and blogs roared.

Let’s do a quick inventory of the (often very loaded) issues that are refracted through this story:

  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • The role of celebrity spokespeople in promoting humanitarian causes
  • The conflict between commercial interests and humanitarian causes
  • The dominant role of advertising in shaping the public discourse
  • The complicated relationship between “corporate social responsibility” activities (SodaStream employs a lot of Palestinians and makes a big point of that) and a company’s core business operations
  • The link between sugary soft drinks and health problems like diabetes and obesity (SodaStream also makes a big point of being “healthier” than, say, Coke)
  • The power of social media to amplify mole hills into mountains

… and let’s not forget the intersection where this crash occurred:  the Super Bowl, America’s biggest sporting event, where TV ads become legendary (remember the Apple Mac ad of 1984?) and “wardrobe malfunctions” can ripple around the world (do I need to remind you what I’m talking about?).

I’m not sure what, exactly, to make of this crash. It appears to me that everybody loses: Johansson’s star looks a bit tarnished in the media, because she appears to have chosen paycheck over principles. Regardless of what you think of SodaStream, as a product or as a company, it is evident that they got some inconvenient light shone on a glaringly controversial fact about their business — a fact that had somehow avoided attracting much attention before. Their CEO complained that any resulting loss of business could cause loss of Palestinian (and Israeli) jobs, and there could easily be some truth in that: a laid off Palestinian employee counts as an “innocent bystander” in my view, hit by the squealing tires and crunching metal of the car crash.

Then there is Oxfam. Well, maybe Oxfam’s little Prius comes away with scratches, compared to Johansson’s dented BMW limousine. Oxfam did lose her as an ambassador, and maybe lost a few lovers of SodaStream as donors.

My guess is that the net effect on the bottom line of everybody involved will be negative … but I could be totally wrong. Maybe in this weirdly hyped up social media world, everybody wins. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and everyone’s gotten plenty of it. Scarlett’s sexy sipping video goes viral (raises her asking price for an ad), more people hear about SodaStream’s product (look, I just told you about it!), donations flow into Oxfam from their core donors in support of their principled stand (and resulting “sacrifice” of mega-celebrity endorsement) …

Ah, yes, I did get this all wrong. This is going to generate cash flow. It’s going to add positively to the GDPs of all the affected countries.

Just as real car crashes do.

And the Super Bowl? Well, it just is what it is: the modern day American Circus Maximus, where shocking and exciting things can be expected to happen. And since my former US home city of Seattle actually won the big game, I don’t feel like expressing too much cynicism about that. (Go Seahawks!)

Actually, my point is not to be cynical at all. I just found the moment fascinating, multi-faceted, instructive, worth reflecting about. When fast-moving cars plow through intersections from different directions, accidents occur.

And it’s hard not to look.

Go to Alan’s public Facebook page and “like” this or comment … >>

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