There is a new cultural trend surrounding Super Bowl commercials. As everyone knows, ad agencies save their best and most creative work for this highly sought-after, very expensive commercial time. Yet with the advent of the internet—specifically videos on the internet—these coveted commercials can go viral even before the big day. So much so, commercials are now being specifically designed and marketed as “banned” from the Super Bowl, which adds another level of interest to the clip.
One such commercial featured so-named “Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson for SodaStream that “called out” its competition (Coke and Pepsi) and was supposedly banned for it by Fox. “Like most actors,” Johansson says at the open of the commercial, “my real job is saving the world.” It was tongue-in-cheek, but Johansson has been a politically active celebrity ambassador for Oxfam, a non-governmental organization determined to end poverty. Something that might literally save the world.
“If only there was some way to make this go viral,” she says at one point. And “go viral” it did, but not for a reason anyone wanted. As a result of this commercial, Scarlett Johansson was fired by Oxfam. Well technically she resigned, but it was clear Oxfam wanted her to go. Yet, why would a charity organization dedicated to fighting poverty across the globe care about a machine that makes carbonated beverages?
The problem is that SodaStream operates out of an industrial park located in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Oxfam vehemently opposes doing business with companies “that operate in settlements [and] further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities we work to support.” This news shocked the many fans of “ScarJo” who were forced to ask themselves: What is Oxfam?
Searches on Google for Oxfam rose after the Super Bowl and, if one uses Google’s pre-fill feature, typing “Oxfam is” offers a variety of choices, none good. “Evil,” “corrupt,” and “bad” were the top three options, although pick any charity and the pre-fill suggestions seem to stick to this theme. But what about Oxfam in particular?
Oxfam is an “international confederation” that began in 1942 at Oxford University, specifically to address the problem of starvation in Greece because of a Nazi blockade. Originally called the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, it eventually grew into an international activist organization and shortened the name to Oxfam in 1965.
For the most part, Oxfam takes clear sides in politically troubling issues which can open the door to controversy. The organization did draw some heat for not calling the open-killing of civilians in Darfur “genocide” because doing so would endanger their ability to feed 600,000 refugees displaced by the violence. In a 2007 blog post the author says, since “birth Oxfam had to decide whether destroying tyranny was more important than relieving immediate suffering, and 65 years on it seems no closer to an answer.”
So, is Oxfam about feeding the hungry? Yes, but there’s more. They also work to “find practical, innovative ways for people to lift themselves out of poverty and thrive.” They also express a desire for political activism to provide a voice for those who may not have one in their governments or the media. For the latter, Oxfam relies on its celebrity goodwill ambassadors, like Johansson, to trick a celebrity-obsessed world to pay attention to troubled areas.
It is in this capacity, as a voice of the oppressed, that Oxfam has firmly established itself as opposed to the Israeli occupation of territory “won” in the Six-Day War in June 1967. Under international law, the occupation of these territories is illegal, but Israel and its political allies have dismissed these laws out-of-hand. Oxfam has championed the cause of the Palestinians who have inarguably been oppressed ever since.
Since 1991, SodaStream—which now boasts 25 factories globally—made their company’s headquarters just outside of Jerusalem in a place called Ma’ale Adumim, which is on the part of the border known as Area C. According to USA Today, the factory employs both Palestinian and Israeli employees, with equal wages, benefits, and rights for all. In a statement on The Huffington Post, Johansson said the company seeks “to [build] a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine,” and support “neighbors working alongside each other.”
There is a movement in the international community that does not see it the same way and wants to establish Israel as an “apartheid” state and impose economic sanctions. Called “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions,” that not only calls for a boycott of Israeli products—like SodaStream—but also for investors to target corporations who do business with Israel as “complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights.” While the BDS movement and Oxfam have similar interests, Oxfam denies that it supports the campaign despite accusations from Israeli business owners—such as SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum—that some of its branches have funded BDS activities.
Jerusalem-based watchdog group NGO Monitor counters Oxfam denial with a fact sheet, which details the connections between the BDS campaign and Oxfam Novib, the Dutch branch of the organization. Opposing Views reached out to Oxfam for comment, but has received no response at press time, so it is unclear whether this was an oversight, a mistake, or the actions of a rogue branch.
This criticism comes on the heels of the negative response to Oxfam’s latest campaign for Africa, featured primarily in Britain. Using bright and vibrant images of landscapes, the ad’s slogan is “Let’s make Africa famous for its epic landscapes, not hunger.” Market research dictated that images of starving Africans had a depressing, negative effect that made people not likely to donate. In an LA Times article, a nonprofit consultant agreed with the research but noted “potential donors feel powerless.”
Yet what about Oxfam’s power? The 72 year-old organization has grown far beyond a few activists in a room at Oxford into the type of organization that could maintain a global presence long before the internet made the world small enough to fit in our pockets. Can a charity with as many moving parts and as much overhead still be as viable as one with a high-traffic website and small cotillion of traveling activists?
If the Oxfam Novib controversy is a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing, perhaps it is time for the wide net of Oxfam to be pulled back some. By clearly focusing their many arms on specific tasks, Oxfam could better avoid controversy and do what they do best: helping people with specific needs.