Sodastream’s latest TV ad featuring newly-appointed spokesperson Scarlett Johansson was undoubtedly one of the most highly-anticipated commercials of this year’s Superbowl – albeit for controversial reasons. Johansson made headlines after announcing her decision to endorse the company, as Sodastream manufactures its create-your-own soda gadgets in the Ma’ale Adumim industrial park – an Israeli settlement located well within Palestinian territory. According to international law, Israeli colonies (widely referred to as “settlements”) built outside of the 1967 armistice line are considered illegal. Despite their illegality and a great deal of international condemnation, these settlements have continued to grow by an average of five percent annually since 2001. In 2011, there were 121 Israeli settlements and 102 outposts (“unofficial” settlements built after the 1990s) located on Palestinian lands, inhabited by nearly 462,000 Israelis. Manufacturing is one of the largest industries in these settlements, with companies such as Ahava Cosmetics and Keter Plastic Products (which are sold at Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco) operating factories alongside Sodastream.
When asked why she opted to strike a deal with the controversial carbonation company, Johansson stated that Sodastream works to encourage economic cooperation between Israel and Palestine. The problem with this defense of the company, however, is that nobody is explicitly against economic cooperation between Israel and Palestine. Rather, the contentious issues are the Israeli settlements on which Sodastream operates. Johansson went so far as to quit her position as global ambassador for Oxfam over the Sodastream endorsement, a position she held for eight years. While working with Oxfam, Johansson personally provided three years’ funding to a girls’ school in India, participated in the “We Can” campaign, and fought for food justice. Following Johansson’s promotion of Sodastream, Oxfam, arguing that the settlements “further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that [they] work to support,” stated that the actress’ ties to Sodastream were “incompatible” with her role as global ambassador. For her part, Johansson stated that “fundamental differences” led to the split.
The controversy with Sodastream garnered significant media attention around the world and even sparked an Internet phenomenon in which Twitter users Photoshopped pictures of Johansson drinking soda onto scenes of human rights abuses in the West Bank. Though it is likely that many people care very little about what Scarlett Johansson has to say about international relations, the controversy did contribute significantly to the discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Johansson’s views on Palestine became a topic of international importance simply by virtue of the sheer amount of clicks, likes, shares and media attention they received. When Canadian Employment, Social Development and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney tweeted that he had been inspired to purchase a Sodastream machine following Johansson’s defense of the company, users from all across the country took to supporting or denouncing the Minister’s position. It is undeniable, then, that Johansson’s actions have made an impression.
Many people may like to think that they do not allow a celebrity such as Scarlett Johansson’s actions to affect their opinions regarding international relations. However, this controversy demonstrates that discourse matters in global politics, even discourse prompted by a celebrity. Johansson’s endorsement of Sodastream caused the issue of Israeli settlements to once again grab the media’s attention, bringing members of the public into the discussion who might previously not have been paying much attention to Sodastream’s practices or to Israeli settlement policy in general. As a result, Sodastream has become the subject of intense international scrutiny, the negative attention causing its stock to plummet in the wake of the controversy. While Jason Kenney may have sided with Sodastream on this issue, the very fact that Johansson’s actions have prompted politicians to weigh in is significant.