Last week, Blake Loates was looking for a little refreshment with Vitaminwater. But she opened up her bottle to take a sip, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The cap of the mixed-berry flavored Vitaminwater Zero read “YOU RETARD.”
The cap’s phrase was already a poor choice of words, but the mistake was made more painful by a family connection: Blake’s 11 year old sister, Fiona, has both autism and cerebral palsy.
Blake’s father Doug penned a letter to Coca-Cola, Vitaminwater’s parent company, blasting them for the inscription on the cap. He said they should be ashamed of themselves, and vowed to never purchase their product again.
How does something like this even happen? The mistake stems from a promotion that Vitaminwater was working on in Canada. They printed two words on each cap, one in French and one in English. The plan was for customers to collect caps and then try to put together sentences. The English speaking Canadians would try to create a sentence out of the English printed word, while the French speaking Canadians would create sentences in French.
Both lists were vetted to ensure there was nothing offensive, or vulgar before the caps were printed. There, however, was one detail that Vitaminwater failed to take into consideration: they did not cross reference each list against the other language.
In this example, the word “retard” in French is simply defined as “late” or “to slow down.” The word does not have nearly the negative connotation in French that it does in English. Vitaminwater ran into similar trouble when a cap was found with the word “douche” listed on it, which in French simply means “to shower.” Shannon Denny, who is the Director of Brand Communications with Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada explained the gaffe.
“Some words that were on the list, such as the one we were contacted about, have a completely innocuous meaning in French and are used regularly within French conversations,” Denny said.
“But when you look at that word from an English standpoint, it takes on a much different, offensive meaning. And that was an oversight on our part during that review process.”
What was supposed to be a fun little promotion to get people to collect Vitaminwater caps created a quick uproar in our digital age. However, Coca-Cola did not hide behind their mistake or make excuses. They took the high road and have agreed to destroy all remaining caps from the promotion. Coca-Cola also immediately reached out to the Loates family, issuing the following statement to ABC News:
“We have spoken to the family to offer our sincerest apologies and to explain the production process to them. This is certainly not an excuse in any way for what has occurred. We wanted them to know that this was in no way intentional and was a mistake on our part during the review process. We also wanted to share that the promotion has since been cancelled and we are no longer producing bottles with those caps..”
While I’m sure the family was mortified by what they saw under the cap of their beverage, it offers some comfort to receive an apology and explanation directly from the source. As we have shared before, we live in a forgiving society, and being honest when you make a mistake is always a better option than trying to cover up the issue. Coke took the issue head on, offered their apologies, and took the proactive measure of destroying all future caps in the promotion. In the future, however, I’m sure they will be much more careful with promotional oversight.