During Lopsided Super Bowl, No Clear Winner in SodaStream Ad Controversy

This ad for SodaStream played during Super Bowl 2014.

My husband and I received a SodaStream drink machine from my parents for Christmas. We're trying to be a little healthier and throw away fewer bottles, and a machine that made delicious soda water seemed a great way to start 2014. Imagine my surprise when I found that my little machine was caught up in a swirling conflict involving the SodaStream Corporation, the international NGO Oxfam, Scarlett Johansson and Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The story has received a lot of national attention in the last week or two, but there is a missing dimension -- the causes and consequences of Oxfam's choices.

The troubles began when Scarlett Johansson, who has worked as a "goodwill ambassador" for Oxfam since 2007, became a spokeswoman for SodaStream this January, and SodaStream has just featured her in an advertisement that aired on Sunday during the Super Bowl. SodaStream is an Israeli corporation, and it operates a factory in Ma'ale Adumim, an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. Many activists, including the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement, argue that these factories and settlements are illegal under international law and impede the achievement of a two-state solution. Oxfam came under fire from BDS activists and its Palestinian partners for keeping Ms. Johansson on. Last Friday, the actress released a statement through the Huffington Post in which she made clear her intent to remain a SodaStream spokesperson. It took almost a week for the situation to be resolved -- just last Thursday Oxfam accepted Ms. Johansson's resignation as global ambassador.

The actress maintains that SodaStream provides jobs for otherwise-poor Palestinian residents, while her critics slam her for justifying economic exploitation of a disempowered people. NGOs that ally themselves with celebrities bring attention to their issue, but they don't control the beliefs and choices of those celebrity figures. For mega-celebrities endorsing a range of products, they must be careful that their products do not compete; NGOs must ensure that the missions served by the endorsements of their mega-celebrity ambassadors do not compete as well.

This becomes increasingly challenging, however, as Oxfam and other international NGOs increase the scope of their activities. SodaStream's Super Bowl ad proclaimed that its drinks are "better for you and for all of us -- less sugar, less bottles." Since Oxfam also works on environmental protection and public health, one could imagine another world in which Oxfam supports this corporate endorsement (though other NGOs have argued that SodaStream's claims do not hold much water). One can see that it is increasingly difficult for multi-issue groups like Oxfam to develop a unified public position when there is potential conflict among the causes that it promotes. Scarlett Johansson is not the only one here who might be serving several masters.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the "ScarJo" affair is how slowly and publicly Oxfam conducted the internal deliberation process. It is no surprise that there were substantial disagreements within the organization. Oxfam, like most of the biggest international NGOs, is trying to build a robust and capable international organization out of what used to be a loose family of charities around the world that all operated under the same name.

But Oxfam -- a group that is known for its provocative and effective advocacy campaigns -- has to speak with one voice in order to continue to have the public impact it seeks. Oxfam staffers in Palestine leaked their disapproval to media outlets, while activists on both sides of the issue visited Oxfam's offices in the United States. Meanwhile, outsiders were left wondering what could be taking Oxfam so long.

All of this should have happened more privately and more quickly. But it appears that divisions within Oxfam between powerful chapters prevented the organization from deciding quickly on a course of action. Oxfam Great Britain, Oxfam America, and the field offices in Palestine have different views about the right political strategy in dealing with the thorny issue of Palestinian territories. This isn't the first time divisions within a major NGO have gone public, but it will hopefully be the last at Oxfam.

NGOs have one big thing going for them -- their reputation. News about internal disagreements at Oxfam reduces the group's credibility and raises questions about their ability to serve their missions. The exact implications for the organization are unknown, but potentially serious. Public attention ensures that Oxfam can raise funds from the public, channel their expert information to the media, and get meetings with policymakers. Groups like Oxfam, Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières, Amnesty International, and World Vision have worked very hard to transform internal practices so that the NGO's structure and mission are both global. The trick is to make sure that work isn't undone by unexpected controversies.

So -- when you watched the Super Bowl ads, you may not have realized that the endorsement of SodaStream has geopolitical implications and came at the cost of a long-standing relationship between a seductive actress and one of the world's leading NGOs. Meanwhile, my husband and I still have to think about what do with our Christmas present.