Taipei, Taiwan – Airbnb’s “community” section reads like a who’s who of progressive causes in the United States.

The short-term rental giant has donated to Black Lives Matter, provided housing for Afghan refugees and has top marks on a Business Equality Index as an inclusive employer.

The top story on its English-language news page is an article, dated February 2, about an Airbnb rental in Los Angeles hosted by American actress Issa Rae, known for speaking out against racial injustice and inequality.

Airbnb’s website, Twitter or Instagram makes no mention of the company’s official sponsorship of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, which have been underway since Friday.

Airbnb isn’t the only official sponsor of the Olympics that appears to be downplaying its role at the Winter Games – at least in English – following a diplomatic boycott by countries like the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Estonia and Lithuania over human rights abuses against ethnic minority Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region and pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong.

The social media accounts of sponsors such as Snickers and Bridgestone, the Japanese auto parts company, have chosen to highlight the Super Bowl over the Olympics, while Black History Month ranks higher on the Instagram account of the American multinational Procter and Gamble.

Winter Olympics sponsors such as Airbnb have taken a stand on social justice issues in the United States [File: Issei Kato/Reuters]

Multinationals’ lukewarm association with the Games highlights the delicate position companies can face when meddling in social justice issues – a trend dubbed “woke capitalism” – whose consumer appeal varies. considerably depending on geography.

Many official sponsors appear to be running “bifurcated campaigns” that see them run a campaign in China around the Olympics and different campaigns elsewhere, according to Rick Burton, who served as director of marketing for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008. .

“Do sponsors use Olympic imagery around the world? And are they using it as aggressively as in the past? And I think the short answer is no, they’re not, Burton told Al Jazeera, citing a host of reasons ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to the fact that the Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics ended just six months ago.

Burton said despite the controversy surrounding the Winter Olympics, brands likely knew what they were getting into from the start.

“In Rio de Janeiro, the displacement of the poor and the pollution and the use of funds to build sports facilities when there was poverty caused people to want sponsors to protest or boycott,” he said. -he declares. “In Sochi, Russia, the same thing existed on the topic of gay rights, and now it exists in China, based on human rights reporting or human rights beliefs. “

American businesses, in particular, face a challenge beyond a diplomatic boycott as the Winter Olympics coincide for the first time ever with the Super Bowl – the most important event in American football. Of the big names, only Intel and Visa have a prominent Olympic brand on their websites and social media accounts.

French and German multinationals Atos and Allianz have at least some content on Instagram, but nothing on Twitter, while Swiss watchmaker Omega connects to a dedicated Olympics page on its social media accounts. Most sponsors have an Instagram story that the user must click on to view Olympic content, although it is not part of the general feed.

Allianz told Al Jazeera in a statement that the company has a long-term commitment to sponsoring the Olympics “which goes far beyond the current Winter Games”, while Atos said in a statement that well that he has been an Olympic sponsor since 2001, he had not announced at Asian games, including PyeongChang 2018, Tokyo 2021 and now Beijing 2022.

Swiss watchmaker Omega, which describes itself as the official “timekeeper” of the Olympics instead of a sponsor, links to a page dedicated to the Games on its social media accounts.

Airbnb, Snickers, Bridgestone and Procter and Gamble did not respond to requests for comment.

Past controversies

Despite the diplomatic boycott, the Beijing Winter Olympics are far from being the first edition of the games to be controversial. Most Olympics have sparked some form of protest, including the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which took place months after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning “gay propaganda”.

The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and Atlanta in 1996 were marred by violence. The 1936, 1976, 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympics all attracted major boycotts due to ties to Nazi Germany, South Africa’s apartheid regime and the Cold War.

A major difference with the Beijing Olympics is the recent rise of identity politics and social justice activism in the West and how brands and companies should respond, said Burton, the former Committee official. American Olympic.

“The big difference is how social consciousness has changed even since Sochi in 2014, when people were concerned about Russia’s LGBTQ record, and with Black Lives Matter campaigns and huge protest movements around the world, these issues are even more common,” Burton said, adding that social awareness is different from country to country.

Differing perceptions and values ​​can put Western companies at odds with Chinese consumers, who may value sustainability and the environment but don’t want to see brands criticizing China on issues like Xinjiang, Hong Kong or the Tibet, said Zak Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Young China. Group, a think tank focused on China’s emerging identity.

Thanks to social media, the distance between China and the rest of the world has also shrunk, which means consumers are also responding faster and faster, Dychtwald said.

“While a decade ago, really before WeChat, there were bigger barriers separating these two information ecosystems, those barriers have become much more porous and so there are a lot more public slippages,” said Dychtwald to Al Jazeera, referring to China’s most popular. messaging app.

“I call them slippages because these are companies that are aware of the ecosystem they face in China, not just the regulatory ecosystem, but also the potential consumer reaction – especially over the last three years. “

nike shop nikeWestern brands such as Nike have been criticized by Chinese consumers for speaking out on human rights issues in China [File: Florence Lo/Reuters]

Brands may also be aware of the PR disasters and boycotts facing Nike, H&M and Intel in China after pledging not to source materials from Xinjiang due to allegations of forced labor in the region. .

“You don’t want to put yourself in a position to say something about Chinese production and then be put in a position where you may have to retract it,” Veronica Bates Kassatly, a UK-based independent industry analyst sustainable clothing. , told Al Jazeera.

“They’re tired of the Western world humiliating them and they’re not going to take it anymore,” Kassatly said, referring to Chinese consumers. “They have the economic muscle now and they don’t need it.”

This puts many multinational brands in a difficult position and can reward silence at events like the Olympics. While companies like Apple, Airbnb, and the NBA may have originated in the United States, they now see China as one of their most important markets.

The Olympics, Dychtwald said, just provided an opportunity for consumers outside of China to see that change.

“They call it ‘awakened capital’ in the US, there’s a feeling that consumers can change the way companies can behave, and in China that’s absolutely true. [as well],” he said. “I think what makes a lot of people uncomfortable is that a lot of consumers [in China] we are asking for is inconsistent with the moral standard we are setting in the United States and in Western countries. »