In January 2014, Scarlett Johansson starred in her shortest role to date: a 30-second Super Bowl ad for home carbonation appliance manufacturer SodaStream. Johansson’s opening line, “Like most actors, my real job is saving the world,” was heard by over 111 million American viewers.
In the ad, Johansson slinks around the screen and stares seductively at the camera while suggestively sipping the beverage. The $4 million advertisement was meant to introduce SodaStream to the American public. Instead Johansson became the subject of international debate and criticism surrounding one of the most divisive geopolitical issues of our time: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
SodaStream, an Israeli company, manufactures a home carbonation device that allows people to “brew” soda at home. Their marketing campaigns encourage consumers to “set the bubbles free”. The company’s value statement focuses on the environmentally friendly and health-conscious nature of their products.
SodaStream’s main factory is in Ma’ale Adumim, an Israeli settlement in the Palestinian West Bank. In a statement in The Huffington Post, Johannson wrote that such a factory allows her to be a “supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine”. In the same statement, she says, “I believe in conscious consumerism and transparency.”
Under the International Criminal Court Rome Statute, the factory site on the settlement is illegal and “a war crime”.
The 126 state parties and signatories of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s IV Geneva Conventions “reaffirm the illegality of Israeli settlements”.
The UN Security Council Resolution 242 criticizes the Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories and asserts “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”.
The International Court of Justice “concludes that the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory have been established in breach of international law”. The Coalition of Women for Peace scrutinizes “international corporate involvement in the Israeli occupation”. Their investigation found that SodaStream “benefits from low rent, special tax incentives, and lax enforcement of environmental and labour protection laws” in the factory that operates in the settlement. SodaStream’s 2012 annual reports reflect a corporate tax rate of 1.7%. The 2012 corporate tax rate in Israel was 25%.
SodaStream has operated this contentious factory in the Mishor Adumim industrial park since 1998. Daniel Birnbaum, SodaStream’s CEO, refers to the factory’s location as a “pain in the ass” due to the international scrutiny. In the same interview, published in Jewish Forward, he praises Johansson’s performance in the ad. Birnbaum denies exploiting Palestinian labourers.
Oxfam, an international charity confederation, questioned Johansson’s affiliation with SodaStream. Oxfam has devoted itself to aligning with UN resolutions to decrease poverty, injustice and inequality around the world. “Businesses that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support,” they have stated. In 2012, Oxfam released Paola Maugeri, a popular Italian radio personality, from her commitment to the charity after she too endorsed SodaStream.
Johansson was an ambassador with Oxfam for eight years. In January 2014, she chose to end her association with Oxfam and represent SodaStream for an undisclosed fee. Social media platforms like Twitter have circulated memes that satirize the ad. One of the most shared images depicts a photoshopped picture of Johansson standing in front of a Palestinian checkpoint with the caption, “Set the bubbles free, not the Palestinians.” Johansson sees no problem with representing the brand—in fact, she’s been giving SodaStream appliances as Christmas gifts for years. In an interview with Time, Johansson said has she “no regrets” with leaving Oxfam. “I am not a role model,” she said.
Due to international pressure predominantly created by the Palestinian organization Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, SodaStream products have been removed from store inventories in countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the UK. SodaStream revenue growth stagnated throughout last year. Share prices plunged from $50.34 to $17.26. In 2013, SodaStream recorded a net income of $42 million. In 2014, the net income was $12 million.
Earlier this year, Johansson’s role as SodaStream’s global brand ambassador was allowed to go dormant. In October, they announced that they will close the Ma’ale Adumim factory—ostensibly because of profit concerns—and will relocate it to an industrial settlement within what the international community considers its legal, pre-1967 borders by July. SodaStream secured a grant worth approximately $7.85 million from the government to construct the new factory in the park near the predominantly Bedouin town of Rahat.
This article has been corrected from the print edition. Johansson was not explicitly dismissed from her role at SodaStream but has not been cast in any ads since. A notice will be printed in the March 16, 2015 issue.