Marketing Brand Safety Brand Strategy

Coke pulls Ja Morant Powerade ads in wake of gun flashing scandal


By Audrey Kemp | Junior Reporter

March 10, 2023 | 6 min read

The sports drink brand has wiped the largest campaign in its history from the internet amid a scandal involving a gun and the NBA star.

ja morant holding a basketball

Powerade has hidden its commercial starring Ja Morant amid the NBA star’s recent actions / Credit: Powerade

Powerade is shifting its game plan after Memphis Grizzlies All-Star Ja Morant allegedly livestreamed himself flashing a gun in a Denver strip club on Saturday.

While Morant hasn’t been charged, he has been benched from recent games and at least four more upcoming games, according to a statement from the Grizzlies.

Earlier this month, Powerade spotlighted Morant in the largest campaign in the brand’s history, ‘From underestimated to undeniable.’ The brand has also made the 60-second ad starring Morant private on its social platforms. Now the ads have disappeared from YouTube.

The controversy comes at an inopportune time for Coca-Cola. The beverage giant had big aspirations for taking on Gatorade with the one-two punch of newly acquired BodyArmor and Powerade.

But things have not been going according to plan. After paying $5.6bn for BodyArmor, Coke saw the brand’s sales decline for the first time. Coke chief exec James Quincey told the Wall Street Journal that there have been “hiccups” with integrating BodyArmor into the Coke system. He said Coke needed to “get the double act [of BodyArmor and Powerade] working well” and said the organization needs to “do better.”

With the peak summer selling season on the horizon, having to pause Powerade’s biggest-ever campaign is “bad timing,” says Ken Sadowsky, veteran beverage analyst and US advisor to the global investment group Verlinvest.

“There’s a lot of activity and growth in the isotonics category, but Coke is now facing a challenge for the umpteenth time. It’s difficult because the 600-pound Gatorade gorilla is pretty good at putting down challengers,” he says.

A Powerade rep did not respond to requests for comment and Coke has not made an official statement.

Pressing pause is the right move, but Coke should go on the record immediately, says Drew Kerr, brand communications consultant at Four Corners Communications. “The best thing for Coke to do is say as little as possible. Coke should say it is pausing its Powerade advertising until it confirms the facts of what has been transpiring. That pause may last a short time but it sends a message that they are vetting the situation seriously. They don’t need to give away anything else at this time.”

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Morant apologized for his actions in a statement released by Tandem Sports + Entertainment: “I take full responsibility for my actions last night. I’m sorry to my family, teammates, coaches, fans, partners, the city of Memphis and the entire Grizzlies organization for letting you down. I’m going to take some time away to get help and work on learning better methods of dealing with stress and my overall well-being.”

In the long run, Morant and Coke have an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive, says Aaron Kwittken, founder and Chairman of KWT Global. “At least Morant issued a timely statement, unlike others. If I were Coke, I would flip the script on this, blow up the existing creative and focus their message along the lines of restorative justice, not retributive actions like canceling him outright. He’s young and can still grow from his recent misdeeds. Perhaps the new creative should track and celebrate his growth journey, as raw and painful as it may be. That kind of partnership may in fact change and save the lives of others.”

Additional reporting by Kenneth Hein.

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