Coca-Cola ad denying ties to Israel sparks outrage in Bangladesh

An advertisement distancing Coca-Cola from Israel sparked a backlash in Bangladesh even as the company reeled from a public boycott over Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza.

Coca-Cola is one of several Western brands facing consumer boycotts for their alleged ties to Israel, which has been incessantly bombarding Gaza. The company had previously denied the allegations of funding military operations in Israel or any other country.

Israel launched a ground and air assault on the Palestinian territory after Hamas attacked southern Israel on 7 October, killing about 1,200 soldiers and civilians and taking dozens hostage.

The Israeli offensive has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians so far, reduced the territory to a wasteland of rubble and left most of its 2.3 million people homeless and on the brink of starvation.

Coca-Cola released the advertisement in Bengali language on Sunday to "dispel misinformation" and boost sales affected by the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel that has gained traction in Muslim countries since the Gaza war began.

The company has reportedly seen sales fall by about 23 per cent in Bangladesh.

The advertisement shows a shopkeeper asking a regular customer on a sweltering day if he would like to have a Coca-Cola. The customer says he has stopped drinking the beverage because it comes from "that country", without naming Israel.

The shopkeeper embarks on a quest to find the source of the information, which is revealed to be an unreliable Facebook page.

He explains to local people that Coca-Cola is not "from that place" and that it has been consumed for 138 years in 190 countries, including Turkey and Spain.

The advertisement does not mention that the Turkish parliament banned Coca-Cola and Nestle products from its restaurants in November. The products are available elsewhere in the country.

Spain last month formally recognised Palestine as a state in a historic move to “achieve real peace”. The advert continues with the shopkeeper saying the beverages company “also has factories in Palestine".

Coca-Cola has earlier been accused of profiting from illegal Israeli settlements through its factory located in the occupied West Bank. The NPR reported in 2018 that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights identified 206 companies around the world that it said enabled and profited from Israeli settlements. It quoted Israeli media as reporting that Coca-Cola was among the companies under review.

The Independent has reached out to Coca-Cola for a comment.

The commercial was first aired in Bangladesh during the Twenty20 World Cup match between India and Pakistan on Sunday.

Bangladeshis have since hit the streets and social media in protest against the "propaganda" advertisement and threatened to intensify the boycott.

Coca-Cola pulled the advert in the wake of the outrage and it was unavailable on the company's YouTube page as of Thursday afternoon.

"Boycotts work. Bangladeshis apply effective BDS against Coca-Cola. BDS now on all genocide-supporting items, people, institutions, media," said Farhana Sultana, professor of geography at Syracuse University.

Hasan Habib, a businessman from Dhaka’s Mirpur, told Al Jazeera that the advert was a "ludicrous attempt to portray that Coke has nothing to do with Israel only consolidates my stance on keep boycotting it".

The actors in the advert as well as the directors have issued public apologies for hurting people's sentiments.

Sharaf Ahmed Jibon, producer and lead actor, said in a statement he did not take "the side of Israel anywhere in this advertisement and I am never in favour of Israel”.

Actor Shimul Sharma said in a post on Facebook that he did the advert "without understanding" and acknowledged that it hurt "my audience, my family, and the people of my country".

"In the future, I will ensure that any work I undertake respects our country's values, human rights, and people's sentiments," he said.