How a Cancelled Super Bowl Ad Reignited the Discussion Over Israeli Occupation of Palestine

SodaStream, a company selling a device to make home-made carbonated water, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight in January 2014 after announcing Scarlett Johansson as a spokesmodel. A scheduled Super Bowl commercial spot was cancelled by Fox, supposedly because it contained a pointed jab at Coke and Pepsi, two major sponsors of the event.  The commercial included Johansson claiming her real job is “saving the world” as she makes a drink using the machine. Smouldering the camera, she seductively sips her beverage and declares that the SodaStream appliance makes soda “that’s better for you – and for all of us”. Ostensibly this is because of the reduced need for plastic, bottled soda, but the political implications of the manufacturing process reveal that the company believes itself to be the solution to more than just environmental issues. Over the following days, the larger conversation grew to be much more politically charged.

The main issue with the Super Bowl ad and Johansson’s participation didn’t have anything to do with its risqué nature, and probably didn’t have to do with the Coke and Pepsi dig – it was because the Israeli-owned company employed Palestinian workers in a manufacturing facility located (at the time) on the West Bank, specifically the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone. The controversy led to boycotts, stock prices falling dramatically, and the relocation of the West Bank factory to Israeli Bedouin city Rahat. Boycotts were led by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which aims to exert international economic pressure on Israel to end occupation and “establish a Palestinian state”. To support a company exploiting the Palestinian resources and people is to support the Israeli occupation. Johansson was also an Oxfam ambassador at the time, and the charity criticised her decision to promote Sodastream. 

An in-depth Bloomberg Business profile, published in 2017, declared that Soda Stream’s story is one of “a CEO who claims to be selling not just bubbles but peace, and who says his model can help resolve one of the world’s most intractable standoffs”. Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of SodaStream, seems to truly believe that his company’s mission is one of assistance and peace.  He notes the presence of onsite synagogues and mosques, religious toleration, higher wages for Palestinians than are usually available in occupied territory, and the fact that all workers are treated the same. A video produced by SodaStream called “Building Bridges, Not Walls” shows a Palestinian worker in the factory and mentions that as one of the largest employers in the West Bank, it helps ease the 30% unemployment rate. A worker stopped at an Israeli border checkpoint says that the employees are “like brothers… one family”. Birnbaum emphasises that Palestinian workers in the factories “are well received, well respected, and well paid”. 

However, in 2013 al-Jazeera published an interview with an anonymous Palestinian Soda Stream factory worker (“M.”) refuting many of these charges. He claimed that Palestinian employees were required to work 60 hours per week without overtime compensation, violating Israeli labour laws. Management is quick to terminate workers if they take multiple sick days, and workers aren’t given prayer breaks throughout the day. Palestinians were “limited to manual labour positions and not advanced into management positions” — this institutionalised discrimination ensures that Palestinians don’t have much managerial power or influence in the company’s actions. According to Reuters, the SodaStream parent company’s board of directors (SodaStream International Ltd.) does not include any Palestinians. If Birnbaum and his associates are so invested in ameliorating the effects of Israeli occupation on the Palestinian people, why aren’t they represented in the upper echelons of management?

Birnbaum’s claim that SodaStream gives Palestinians jobs they wouldn’t otherwise have also begs for further investigation. Why is unemployment in Palestine and the West Bank so high? Al-Jazeera states that under Israeli occupation, “a self-sustaining Palestinian economy cannot develop…The Palestinian Authority has no control over either the import of the inputs needed to produce goods or the export of final products.  It does not control Palestinian airspace, water and electrical systems, radio frequencies, most natural resources, significant tax revenues, monetary policy, the movement of goods and people inside the occupied Palestinian territories, and many other factors needed to ensure development.” And these jobs at SodaStream aren’t easy to maintain: Palestinians must spend hours each day crossing between border checkpoints and sometimes paying excessively high fees to shady employment agents. Equal pay for Palestinians and Israelis is not guaranteed or completely practiced. For SodaStream to be selling water accessories, while the workers producing them are not always guaranteed clean, potable water is atrocious. 

The SodaStream website conspicuously avoids any mention of the occupation or conflict – press releases focus on the environmental impact of the machines, more celebrity endorsements, and pleas to drink more water. A page titled “About the Plant” is empty, stating that the content is “under review”, with “Information to be uploaded shortly”. SodaStream seems to vacillate wildly in their attitudes regarding their manufacturing processes: one year they make a propaganda video claiming that their Israeli and Palestinian workers are “like brothers”, now they don’t even acknowledge this history on their official website.

The power differences between the Israeli owners and Palestinian workers is clear: regardless of how Palestinians are treated in the various SodaStream factories, the fact remains that Israel has still occupied Palestinian land and refuses to cede control to the thousands of people who live there.

As for Johansson, she stood by her paycheque: the post-cancellation scandal led to her resigning from her post as an Oxfam ambassador, rather than disavowing the advert. These situations are always complicated, without solutions that come easily or please everyone. While it is good that SodaStream has moved their factory back to Israeli territory, Birnbaum and the board should focus more on the intracompany power dynamics: beginning with equal pay for Palestinians and Israeli workers, fostering a more inclusive company culture, and most importantly, allowing Palestinians advancement opportunities to upper management. Without marginalised voices being boosted into positions of power, nothing will ever change.



Banner Image: Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Images in the public domain.