Coke’s Super Bowl ad, featuring a montage of America the Beautiful in eight languages amidst scenes of beautiful people and landscapes wins this year’s controversy award. At one level, it’s just a company selling “sugar water,” in Steve Jobs’s famous phrase. But, of course, there’s more to it. Coke spent untold millions to produce a message touching social, cultural, and political nerves to make us notice and talk about it.Coke succeeded. The ad is beautiful, manipulative, disingenuous, and subversive.
Critics have struggled to express what troubles them, some thoughtfully and some in blunderbuss fashion. It’s elusive because the piece is beautiful and humanly warm. Ultimately, criticism of the ad is not about discomfort with diversity. It’s about the limits of diversity in core concepts and sinews that should unite our nation. To fully secure the peace and freedom that enable and animate our human diversity, there has to be a shared governing creed. The ad subtly undermines the idea of any core cultural commonality.
First, let’s get a grip. It’s just a pretty commercial. It’s not a candidate’s platform or a movement’s manifesto. On an importance scale of 1-to-10, this is a 2. The misguided expressions of outrage and calls to boycott Coke played right into the marketing department’s fondest hopes. But smug denunciations of critics and charges of racism and xenophobia weren’t triumphs of intellectual honesty, either.
Embedded in the ad was something unsettling and provocative. It’s not that the ad praised diversity of people and languages in America. It’s not because lots of Americans like to “demonize people who don’t look like the way they’d like them to look like or came from some other place,” Colin Powell’s clumsy recent phrase from another context. America is full of human diversity that Americans rightly celebrate. Coke could have rendered virtually any other song in the same way and no one would have raised an eyebrow.
No, the reaction is not to diversity. The ad is noteworthy and controversial only because it transformed a patriotic song—a sentimental second national anthem for many—to make its multicultural, multi-lingual point.
Still what’s the problem? It is this: the ad is sophisticated and manipulative in service of a fiction. It depicts a vision that doesn’t exist in reality and that its proponents don’t really believe in. It subtly takes sides in a debate about the meaning of America and Americanism. It does these things framed in a way that exalts the left wing view and scores cheap points against traditional understanding of American exceptionalism and against some of its sputtering, not fully artful articulators.