Osama bin Laden’s Love for Pepsi, Coke, Nesquik: Is He Bad for Business?

Bin Laden's penchant for Pepsi and Nesquik triggered giggles—but likely not sales. Tricia Romano talks to branding guru Morgan Spurlock about the financial fallout.

The revelation that Osama bin Laden and his compound-mates loved Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Vaseline, and Nesquik, among other infidel-friendly Western products, was one of the most fascinating of the small tidbits about the terrorist leader’s mundane life.

Gallery: Osama's Favorite Brands

Consumers may be amused by the news—“OMG, he liked Pepsi?”—but being exposed as bin Laden’s favorite is a small PR nightmare for the brands. What, if anything, can the makers of these products do when it becomes known that the world’s No. 1 baddie loved their product?

“Absolutely nothing!” said Mick DiMaria, a creative director of Los Angeles advertising agency 72 and Sunny, which runs campaigns for Carl’s Jr., Hewlett-Packard, and Nike. “Unless you are the CEO of their competition,” he quipped. “But probably still nothing. I don’t think it hurts the brand if he likes them or uses them, but they don’t necessarily want to talk about it or brag about it.”

“You want to find out which one he likes more, and hopefully it’s not your company, and then you leverage that as much as you can to make sure that nobody buys the official beverage of terrorism,” joked filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, whose latest documentary, Pom Wonderful: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, opens in wide release this week. He added, more seriously, “I think you ignore it completely. It didn’t exist. Unless it’s it’s affecting your sales, you just don’t—this never happened! I don’t know what you are talking about!”

Spurlock should know. His sold his latest “ docbuster” entirely to sponsors to study product placement and how it affects movies. And after he released his first documentary, Super-Size Me, which chronicled the health effects of eating nothing but food from McDonald’s every day for a month, he became familiar with being treated like a nuisance by his subject.

“Who won the taste test? That’s what I want to know,” said Spurlock. “That’s a taste test that I don’t think either one of them [Coke or Pepsi] wants to win.”

“When Super-Size Me came out, McDonald’s was all—‘Oh, Morgan Spurlock, he’s crazy. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Look, we’ve got all these salads! And there’s a yogurt and an apple! We’ve got all these things!’” he said. “They’ll all be like, ‘Oh, that Osama, he’s crazy. We have people all around the world who love freedom that drink our product!’”

For the most part, said Nick Parish, the North American editor of Contagious magazine, the bin Laden compound’s preference for American products says less about the brands themselves than about the permeation of the brands worldwide, as well as our own desire for details about bin Laden’s daily life.

“The availability of all these big-name products that we have in our Western supermarkets and convenience stores and corner stores... probably speaks strongly to globalization, that Warholian idea that the president and the Joe on the street can drink the same thing,” said Parish. “We’re drinking the same quick milk powder as people in Abbottabad and using the same Vaseline on our chapped lips.”

“We’re so eager to ascribe qualities to this guy,” he added. “We don’t have a living, breathing Osama bin Laden that we can personify or humanize. We have these disembodied tapes. He’s an evil mastermind. People are interested in the little details that will help them groom this mythical figure—and he was mythical—to reality. The idea that he had people making grocery runs for him and picking up a little bit of everything is a really important human detail.”

If anything, Parish and DiMaria say, bin Laden and his buddies are unusual consumers for failing to choose a side in the cola wars. “The other question that that raises, which is a much more interesting philosophical question: Was this a guy to whom brands didn’t matter at all?” said Parish.

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“He’s brand agnostic, which is kind of interesting, because it’s coming from a highly religious dude,” said DiMaria.

“Who won the taste test? That’s what I want to know,” said Spurlock. “That’s a taste test that I don’t think either one of them [Coke or Pepsi] wants to win.”

Spurlock said he doesn’t think Pepsi will get a boost from the association with bin Laden, any more than the link will prevent people from buying the drink.

“That would be the weirdest bump you could ever get—the ‘bin Laden bump,’” laughed Spurlock. At the same time, he added, “I can’t imagine that somebody’s going to suddenly say, ‘I’m not buying Coke because Osama bin Laden had it in his house.’”

But the accidental bin Laden association is different from other scandal fallouts. “Because it was a one-way street, of Osama liking the brands and not the other way around, not the hiring of him by the brands, I think no matter what, it should probably not have any negative impact,” said DiMaria.

If a brand is clever and brave, it can use a notorious person to its advantage. DiMaria worked on the Carl’s Jr. campaign that featured Paris Hilton eating a burger in a skimpy bikini and washing a car in a sexually suggestive manner. The ad came out just after her unwitting debut in a sex tape, One Night in Paris.

“If anything, that kind of stuff can help a brand that prides itself on being edgy. If she was a spokesperson for Coke or Pepsi, that probably would have been the basis for dropping her,” said DiMaria. “It kind of depends on the brand and what the tone of their marketing is and how much their audience can accept.”

Though Pepsi is not scrambling to get any al Qaeda endorsements, there’s one thing that all the brands can be thankful for, said DiMaria: “If there was a photo of him enjoying any of these products, it probably would not be something the CEO of those companies would ever want to see or get out there. Can you imagine—Osama bin Laden drinking a Coke?”

A moment of silence, then, as the board of Coca-Cola lets out a collective sigh of relief.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Tricia Romano is an award-winning writer who has written about pop culture, style, and celebrity for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Spin, and Radar magazine. She won Best Feature at the Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award for her Village Voice cover story, about sober DJs and promoters in the nightlife industry, " The Sober Bunch."