With their bottle caps that said, "Help me, I'm trapped in SoBe factory," SoBe Beverage discovered the hard way that forced labor is serious business. This is an example of when humor can be overdone.
The SoBe Bottle Cap Screw Up
It's well known that SoBe Beverage, a PepsiCo company, prints amusing—and occasionally ridiculous—messages on the inside of their bottle caps. Typically, they resemble outdated slogans like "That's what she said" or Dadaist riddles like "Grab life by the lizard."
However, SoBe unleashed a storm of controversy in July 2015 when it printed this gem beneath the Lifewater caps:
Blamed on Marketing Contest
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people were shocked by this because they believed SoBe was trivializing forced labor.
Of course, they turned to the internet for answers. One common reply is as follows:
Usually I enjoy the Sobe caps, but this is just beyond creepy. Seriously @SoBe, whats up with that?
Initially, SoBe's marketing division hesitated, stating that the message had been submitted through its 2013 "Message in a Bottle" competition. Then, after reconsidering, it concluded that perhaps jokes about forced labor weren't all that funny after all. In response to a customer who expressed concern about the trapped worker, the company tweeted an apology:
A Laughing Matter?
Even though it was obvious that the message was intended to be humorous, it raised some unsettling facts that should not be ignored. Similar incidents have occurred in the past when real oppressed workers concealed messages in products.
Inside a box of Kmart Halloween decorations, a woman in 2013 discovered a disturbing letter written by a Chinese factory worker at Masanjia Labor Camp in Shenyang. It stated, among other things:
…please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.
A similar letter, written by a man in a Chinese prison factory that produced the distinctive carry-all, was discovered inside a Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bag in 2012, which caused a shocked woman in New York to flee. It said:
We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory. Thanks and sorry to bother you.
Does Humor Belong in Marketing Anymore?
Naturally, yes. A great tool for a marketer's toolbox is humor. Cute bottle cap messages from SoBe are almost always entertaining.
However, a joke that implies that a company is keeping workers captive in a factory against their will offends a lot of customers. It begs the question of whether the marketing wizard behind the SoBe fiasco printed one final message before being fired: