Coke Apologizes for Antigay Social Media Tool

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com January 28 2014 2:02 PM ET

Coca-Cola has apologized and removed the offending program after LGBT activists called out the company, a 2014 Winter Olympics sponsor, for promoting a social media tool that let users customize their own virtual can of Coke but refused to recognize certain words, including "gay," "lesbian," and "queer."

Over the weekend, AmericaBlog uncovered a South African website that invited users to "Share a Virtual Coke" but responded to submissions of pro-gay words with an error message reading, "Oops. Let's pretend you didn't just type that. Please try another name."

Tuesday morning, Coca-Cola published an apology on its website, stating that the program was incorrectly formatted and that the website has been pulled down until the glitch can be corrected. 

Explaining that the "Share a Coke" campaign was intended to allow users to customize a Coke can with their own name in the brand's iconic logo script, Coca-Cola acknowledged that the version hosted on the company's South African site didn't restrict submissions to names. 

"Specifically, the name and message auto-generator on our South Africa 'Share A Coke' website would not accept the word 'Gay,' but did accept the word 'Straight,'" reads the statement from Vukani Magubane of Coca-Cola South Africa. "This isn't how the program was supposed to work, and we've pulled the site down until we can fix the problem. We apologize for this mistake. As one of the world’s most inclusive brands, we value and celebrate diversity. We have long been a strong supporter of the LGBT community and have advocated for inclusion, equality and diversity through both our policies and practices."

"More than 700,000 Coca-Cola system associates get up every morning determined to make the world a happier place and, when errors like this happen, we take it seriously," continues the statement. "Thank you for raising this with us, and we’ll get it fixed."

Activists upset with Coca-Cola's silence regarding Olympics host country Russia's anti-LGBT laws and violent repression of dissent took the advertising gimmick as further evidence that Coke is intentionally ignoring LGBT people.

Despite repeated calls from activists to take a stand on Russia's anti-LGBT laws, Coke has declined to issue any sort of condemnation of the nation's ban on so-called gay propaganda. When a gay Russian was arrested and fined last week for unfurling a rainbow flag as the Olympic torch passed through his city, Coke issued a statement addressing the arrest and confirming that the officers who detained the protester were wearing uniforms emblazoned with Coke's logo. The statement did not condemn the police's silencing of the protester but did claim that the beverage company is "one of the world's most inclusive brands, [which] value[s] and celebrate[s] diversity."

While the beverage company has removed the offending "Share a Coke" website, John Aravosis at AmericaBlog uncovered another potentially antigay glitch in the company's automated response system Monday evening. 

When Aravosis attempted to use the company's "Virtual Agent" to ask a question about LGBT rights in Russia, the automated response given mirrored the tone of the controversial "Share a Coke" campaign denial. 

Coke's "Virtual Agent" is available through the company's website on its "Contact Us" page and welcomes users to "Ask Coca-Cola." But when Aravosis typed the question, "Gay rights are being oppressed in Russia, what is Coke doing to speak out?" The system responded with the message, "That’s not very classy. Let’s have a polite conversation."

Suspecting that the keyword triggering the automatic response was related to "gay" or "lesbian," Aravosis then entered each of those words alone as its own question. When he typed "gay," the system returned a response reading, "That's not so nice. Let's have a polite conversation." When Aravosis wrote the word "lesbian," Coke's "Virtual Agent" replied by writing, "I will pretend you didn't just say that! I'm here to answer any questions about Coca-Cola."

A representative from Coca-Cola's Atlanta headquarters confirmed to The Advocate that the company was aware of the issues with the "Virtual Agent," and was investigating the matter. Ashley Brown, Coke's group director of digital communications and social media, told The Advocate that "the logic behind the 'Virtual Agent' is being looked at as well — we kicked off that work as soon as we saw the AmericaBlog post yesterday. So, we'll get that fixed too!"