Crimes Against Humanity, I’m Lovin’ It: Issues in Sponsorship of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics
By: Inessa Goodman
While business leaders and CEOs have never shied away from promoting their political agendas and views, the line is sometimes blurred between what is appropriate, and what is not. The recent controversies involving Chik-fila, Barilla, and their public statements against the LGBT community highlight this issue. Recently, a similar issue has surfaced, not involving public statements, but mere funding of an entity that supports questionable social policies.
What effect does this have on businesses? Should businesses be held more accountable for their social responsibility? Specifically, this article explores this issue in the context of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Current Anti-Gay Legislation in Russia
Homophobia is now engrained in the state policies in Russia. In June 2013, Vladimir Putin, president of Russia signed an “anti-gay propaganda law”. These laws ban the “public display and dissemination of homosexual propaganda”. Punishments for violating these laws range from fines of $150 to $1,500, and a possible fifteen day jail sentence.[i] The law is unclear what constitutes propaganda; meaning it could range from speech to signs, to public displays of affection between homosexual individuals.[ii] A law was also recently passed that would make it illegal for gay couples to adopt children from Russia, both at home and abroad. There are also talks of removing children from same sex couples.[iii]
Apart from these discriminatory laws, there is evidence of human rights violations, violence against gays, taking place in public with no condemnation from the Russian government. Groups like “Occupy Pedophilia” target young homosexuals, shaming and torturing these individuals, while simultaneously filming this activity. This violence is then displayed on social media websites, even the local news, in full view of all the public, and the Russian government.[iv]
In November 2012, the European Court for Human Rights determined that the propaganda law was discriminatory under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights after an activist, Irina Fedotova was convicted under the law for holding a sign that read HOMOSEXUALITY IS NORMAL AND I AM PROUD OF MY HOMOSEXUALITY.[v] The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also condemned this law, urging its appeal.[vi] On November 5, 2013, the Dutch foreign minister proclaimed the situation serious enough to consider granting asylum to those subject to inhumane treatment or violations of their human rights.[vii]
Sponsorship of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics
This activity has culminated in a huge backlash against the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Many are calling for the boycott of these Olympics. Consequently, many are calling for major sponsors to pull their sponsorship, or to use their platform to advocate for LGBT rights.[viii] The major sponsors of the Sochi Winter Olympics include General Electric, McDonalds, Panasonic, Samsung, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and the Dow Chemical Company. Many LGBT activist groups have held protests against McDonalds, P&G, and Coca-Cola, in the latter case pouring the product into the sewers outside of their corporate headquarters[ix]. Many maintain withholding money would have a direct and positive effect on the Russian government; similar to the results seen in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, which generated 20,000 permanent jobs, completely restricted the city landscape, and turned the city into the 12th most popular city destination in the world for tourists.[x]
Ultimately, people question the social responsibility of these companies in seemingly overlooking these atrocities in favor or promoting their own business. In some minds, this support clearly shows disregard for any international norms or international human rights laws. Corporate social responsibility relates to corporate self-governance of a business’ policies and their effect on the public. The company ensures that they are complying with ethical standards, both home and abroad.[xi] In this case, many feel that these sponsors are shirking their responsibility of adhering to international norms.[xii] With the United Nations having condemned the actions of the Russian government, any sort of support being funneled their way seems to suggest a passive attitude toward the international crimes taking place in Russia.
To date, only Coca-Cola and GE have made any statements regarding their sponsorship. According to Gerhard Heiberg, head of marketing for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), many sponsors, especially American, are afraid of what could happen to them, “this could ruin a lot for all of us.”[xiii]
RadioFreeEurope/RadioLibery contacted all ten of the major sponsors, but none mentioned any plans to drop their sponsorship or publically raise the issue of gay rights during the Olympics.
Hans-Ake Danielsson, Scania’s press manager , a Swedish automotive sponsor for the Olympics said ,“As long as there are no sanctions on doing business in a certain country, we are doing business.” “If you should take into consideration different things like, ‘Shall we deliver to countries with the death penalty, for instance the U.S. and China?’… We have to act on a commercial basis. Otherwise, we couldn’t sell almost anywhere in the world.” [xiv]
These companies sponsorship will most likely not serious effect their business. Take for example the lack of backlash against Barilla and Chik-Fil-A here in the United States. In a USA Today poll, 53% of people said they would boycott Chik-Fil-A after its president made anti-gay comments, while 43% said they were unaffected.[xv] In a telephone survey conducted by Ramussen Reports, 61% were in favor of Chik-fil-A, while 13% said they would participate in a boycott.[xvi] On Chik-Fil-A Appreciation day, initiated by Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, restaurant sales increased by 29.9%.[xvii]
Whatever the impact has been, what is more important, however, is holding corporations liable for violating their corporate social responsibility. Does this case, however, qualify such behavior? Or is it too far removed, as Mr. Danielsson alleges.[xviii]
Having a big brand name endorse something can clearly send a message, and sway people into thinking a certain way; case and point, Chik-fil-A and their surge of purchases in support of the president’s comments. However, there is a stark difference between preaching a hateful message, and a situation like this of the Sochi Olympics. It seems a stretch to say that the sponsorship from these companies indicates any sort of direct, or indirect support of these Russian laws, or widespread violence. As many of these companies contend, their sponsorship is directed towards promoting the message of the Olympics, something very opposite to what is happening in Russia. While the full sincerity of these claims can be discussed (of course a major reason for sponsorship is for the benefit of the company), it is not these companies intention to project that they condone or support the Russian anti-gay laws.
That being said, these corporations should take positive steps toward promoting a message of tolerance of all sexual identities, and promote LGBT rights. Doing so would be a definite step in promoting social responsibility, and conforming to the international norms of global society. Failing to do so would not only be an injustice, but also spread a message that profit-inducing business is the only goal. As many opposed to boycotting the Olympics suggest, bringing these issues to light during these Olympics will put Russia in the hot seat, and make them come to grips with their violations of human rights.[xix] These sponsors should take a stance and make a statement, doing otherwise would be nothing short of an injustice.
[i] Sean Guillory,Repression and Gay Rights in Russia, The Nation, September 26, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/article/176368/repression-and-gay-rights-russia#.
[iv] Tom Balmforth, In Russia, Violent Videos Show a Startling New Form of Gay Bullying, The Atlantic, August 2, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/08/in-russia-violent-videos-show-a-startling-new-form-of-gay-bullying/278294/.
[v] Repression and Gay Rights in Russia.
[vi] Colin Stewart, U.N. rights office rejects anti-gay laws of Russia, Moldava, Erasing 76 Crimes, August 18, 2013, http://76crimes.com/2013/08/18/u-n-rights-office-rejects-anti-gay-laws-of-russia-moldava/
[vii] Anthony Deutsch, Dutch say Russian gay rights violations may warrant asylum, Reuters, Nov. 5, 2013, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/11/05/uk-netherlands-russia-gays-idUKBRE9A40LZ20131105.
[viii] Richard Solash, Gay Rights Activists Confront Corporations on Sochi Olympic Sponsorship, RadioFreeEurope, RadioLiberty, September 09, 2013, http://www.rferl.org/content/olympics-sochi-gay-lgbt-sponsors/25100063.html.
[x] Adam Taylor, How the Olympic Games Changed Barcelona Forever, Business Insider, July 26, 2012, http://www.businessinsider.com/how-the-olympic-games-changed-barcelona-forever-2012-7
[xi] Fran Hawthorne, The Reasons-and Risks-Behind Corporate Social Responsibility, Chief Executive, January 14, 2013, http://chiefexecutive.net/the-reasons%E2%80%94and-risks%E2%80%94behind-corporate-social-responsibility.
[xii] See Keith Weir, RPT-Olympics-Russian rights rows put pressure on Sochi Sponsors, Reuters, October 25, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/25/olympics-sponsors-idUSL5N0IF1UT20131025 ; See also, Jessica Elgot, Gay Rights Activists Target Coca-Cola Over Russia’s Sochi Winter Olympics, The Huffingtonpost UK, October 21, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/10/21/gay-rights-russia-coca-cola_n_4135214.html; See also Gay Rights Activists Confront Corporations on Sochi Olympic Sponsorship
[xiii] Gay Rights Activists Confront Corporations on Sochi Olympic Sponsorship
[xv] Whitney Matheson, Breakfast poll: The Chick-fil-A Controversy, USA Today, July 19, 2012, http://content.usatoday.com/communities/popcandy/post/2012/07/breakfast-poll-the-chick-fil-a-controversy/1#.Unw-R-I4kf6.
[xvi] 61% Hold Favorable Opinion of Chick-fil-A, Rasmussen Reports. August 8, 2012, http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/august_2012/61_hold_favorable_opinion_of_chick_fil_a.
[xvii] Jan Norman, Franchises weather Chick-fil-A's controversy, The Orange County Register, August 7, 2012, http://www.ocregister.com/articles/fil-367629-chick-company.html.
[xviii] Gay Rights Activists Confront Corporations on Sochi Olympic Sponsorship.
[xix] Maria Antonova, Russia’s Gay Community Opposes Sochi Olympics Boycott Calls, Agence France Presse October 10, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/14/russia-gays-sochi-boycott-_n_4093864.html.