Actress Scarlett Johansson wandered into a fizzing storm of controversy when she became “brand ambassador” and Super Bowl ad star for SodaStream, the Israeli manufacturer of do-it-yourself carbonation products.
When her partnership with Soda-Stream was announced, Ms. Johansson was shpritzed by pro-Palestinian advocates, with the harshest blows coming from the Oxfam organization for which she had served as a “global ambassador” for eight years.
The company said that promoting SodaStream was “incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador,” because the company has a manufacturing plant in the west bank, in an industrial park adjacent to Ma’aleh Adumim.
To the delight of Israel supporters and opponents of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, Ms. Johansson stuck with Soda-Stream and quit her Oxfam gig.
In Hoboken last Wednesday evening, Liran Kapoano, by day the director of the Center for Israel Engagement at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, wanted to see who else shared his happiness over Ms. Johannson’s decision.
Looking on Facebook, he wondered whether anyone had made a page supporting her. His search came up empty. So he started a page, “I support Scarlett Johansson against the haters.”
He notified a couple of his friends with whom he had fought against Palestinian deligitimization of Israel as students at Rutgers, and they liked the page.
As it turned out, he hit a nerve.
“All of a sudden we had ten or 15 likes even though there were only three of us,” he said. “By the time I went to sleep, we had 250 people” liking the page.
In fact, that rapid support had a drawback. By the time he realized that he had misspelled the actress’ name in creating the Facebook page, the page had too many supporters for him to change it himself. He had to appeal to Facebook customer service to make the change – a process that took several days.
That first night, he expressed the hope that by the time the ad aired on the Super Bowl, the page would have garnered 10,000 likes.
Sure enough, by the time the game was over, the page had 13,500.
The airing of the SodaStream ad didn’t end the discussion – or the growing support for the page, which as of midday Tuesday had more than 24,000 likes.
“There’s this group of people who are big Israel supporters and have had enough of this” talk of boycotts, Mr. Kapoano said. “That’s what it boils down to. People see a pretty face being attacked for no real reason.
“There’s this kind of perception we’re under fire. In reality, it doesn’t have much tangible value in terms of actually achieving a kind of goal, other than getting a very few celebrities like Elvis Costello to vouch for them,” he said.
Mr. Kapoano, who admits to not having been particularly aware of Ms. Johansson, though he enjoyed her role in “The Avengers,” said he thinks that attacking her may have been overreach by the BDS movement.
“She’s a very likable person, she’s very popular in mainstream culture. She has a built-in base of people who want to support her, even with nothing to do with Israel,” he said.
Ms. Johansson insisted that the Palestinians benefited from the SodaStream factory.
“SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights,” she said in a statement.
On the BDS side, though, the contretemps over Johanssen has been judged a success. It brought their campaign a higher profile, scoring not only an op ed in the New York Times by BDS originator Omar Barghouti, but articles laying out the claims and counterclaims about the political situation of Palestinian workers in publications as disparate as the Christian Science Monitor, the Economist, and the technology blog Gizmodo.
And it’s not clear whether the high-profile advertising benefited SodaStream. While it didn’t help that the Super Bowl lost viewers in the second half, when the SodaStream ad aired – by then the dismal fate of the Denver Broncos was a foregone conclusion – the controversy may have been a factor in seeing the company’s stock drop to the lowest level in more than a year.
Company CEO Daniel Birnbaum said earlier this week that the Israeli government had reneged on a deal to provide millions of dollars in aid to the company in order to expand its factory in the Negev, within the 1967 borders. He said the company would scale back its planned expansion.
In an interview with Forward, Mr. Birnbaum said his company’s west bank factory was “a pain in the ass.” He said he would have never established the plant, which was set up before his tenure at the company, but vowed he would not close the factory in response to pressure. He told the Forward that he “just can’t see how it would help the cause of the Palestinians if we fired them.”
Miriam Allenson, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s director of marketing services, emailed a statement from the organization. “We’ve spoken out about the BDS movement’s push to delegitimize Israel from the beginning,” she wrote.
“Lately, in the wake of the American Studies Association boycott resolution and other anti-Israel challenges, we’ve increased our vigilance. When the issue of the SodaStream commercial arose, we spoke out and took action. In regard to the BDS movement and all others who would harm Israel, we see ourselves as the watchmen on the wall.”
For his part, Mr. Kapoano said that his goal is not to endorse SodaStream – though his father has one “and it’s a pretty good product.” At work, the Jewish Federation just bought one for its kitchen area. But at home in Hoboken, “I don’t have room on the counter.”
JTA Wire Service contributed to this story