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Wahls: Celebrating America, the Beautiful

BY ZACH WAHLS | FEBRUARY 06, 2014 5:00 AM

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You’ve probably already seen Coca-Cola’s multilingual ad “America the Beautiful,” which aired Sunday night during the second quarter of Super Bowl XLVIII. If you haven’t, the 90-second video is well worth your time and is easily found on YouTube.

Easily found, too, are the blithe and grotesque responses to the idea of a multilingual America. Both the ad itself and the xenophobic reactions to it tell us something powerful about the America of 2014 and the future we’ll all share.

The ad begins with a series of shots, intended to give the viewer a kaleidoscopic view of America (and a generous helping of Coke’s logo) as the tune to the title song plays. Thirty seconds in, we see a cowboy riding his horse through the West, maybe Wyoming, as the song begins and “Oh beautiful for spacious skies” rings out in a soft, angelic tone over a string ensemble. Five seconds later, the next line is delivered in Spanish, and the camera pans past two young Latina girls in a movie theater. You can see the anticipation on their faces, and I realize in subsequent observation that the viewer, too, is watching a film.  

It immediately becomes obvious where the advertisement is going: It’s a stirring performance of a classic tribute to America’s stunning landscape — the beauty of which can unite us all in awe — delivered in the words of just a few of the many languages spoken every day by Americans. The reaction, too, has proven just as predictable. The ad features Hebrew, Mandarin, Keres, Arabic, English, Tagalog, Hindi, Spanish, and Senegalese-French, and the ad hadn’t been over for 10 seconds before my friend Corey mused, with a chuckle, “Well, that’s going to have a mixed reaction.”

Corey was right. The evening wasn’t yet over before Michael Patrick Leahy over at Breitbart.com had posted an article titled “Why Coca Cola’s[sic] Multicultural ‘America the Beautiful’ Ad Was Offensive” on the site’s “Big Government” blog. Feel free to peruse any of the 7,000-plus comments, if you have the stomach for it.

It pains me that the issue is being painted along “liberal” vs. “conservative” lines, when there’s certainly nothing inherent in conservatism as an ideology that begets the kind of response the ad has received. Instead, much of the criticism seems to be based on the assertion from Leahy that, “As far as the executives at Coca Cola[sic] are concerned, however, the United States of America is no longer a nation ruled by the Constitution and American traditions in which English is the language of government. It is not a nation governed in the Anglo-American tradition of liberty.”

There are several points of contention. At the first, America has long been home to a multiplicity of languages, chief among them English (which likely explains why the ad began and ended in English) but also the languages of Native Americans — such as Keres — and those spoken by other European settlers, such as Spanish. Further, to describe our nation’s tradition of liberty as “Anglo-American” is to deny the contribution of families such as mine and likely yours (German and Irish are the two most frequent national ancestries in Iowa and Illinois) let alone those of literally anybody who is not an Anglo-American. It should be beyond question that America’s tradition of liberty has been grown, not diminished, by non-Anglo Americans in the centuries since 1776. The expansion of our democracy and increased franchise has made America a freer nation — and that’s something Coke celebrates as well.

Indeed, Coca-Cola’s entire brand (and product) is built around a fundamentally lower-case-d democratic idea: Whether you’re the president of the United States or a member of the working poor, the bottle of Coke you drink is the same. It is the precise opposite of high-priced luxury goods. Coke offers the promise that regardless of who you are or where you’re from, you, too, can enjoy this drink — it is, to use a turn of phrase, a uniter, not a divider.

There are, of course, issues with what’s in a can or bottle of Coke (plenty of bone and teeth-rotting chemicals) and the business practices of the corporation (low wages, groundwater depletion, union busting, intentional deception of consumers) itself. Further, Coca-Cola is embroiled in controversy surrounding its sponsorship of the Winter Olympic Games — which are taking place in the rabidly anti-LGBT environment of Sochi, Russia — and Coke’s refusal to speak out against anti-LGBT discrimination regarding the Games.

It becomes easy, in such situations, to dismiss the contents of an advertisement as simply the result of a company looking to increase its profits, to say that “Coca-Cola doesn’t care about diversity; it just thinks that it can make more money by running this ad to persuade you that it cares about diversity and recognizing cultural differences.” One could point out that Coca-Cola likely even predicted the controversy that might break out, anticipating columns such as this one as a possibility for free publicity.

Frankly, Coke’s apathy or commitment to diversity is difficult for me, as a mere consumer, to honestly or fully assess. But this is an instance in which intentions are not particularly important. I’d much rather live in an America where Coca-Cola thinks it can boost profits by associating itself with an embrace of America’s ethnic, cultural, and demographic realities rather than distancing itself from what are fundamental truths about our future.

And that association with and celebration of an increasingly multicultural America should show us something about where we’re going. As the generation that this advertisement appeals to (i.e., ours) comes of age and climbs the ranks, those of us with whom the ad resonates will find ourselves in the position to incorporate those values into the behavior of our institutions: government, nonprofit, and for-profit alike.

The ad ends with two kids running off into a sunset. We see smiles and hear laughter, and the unspoken assertion is that the mutual respect demanded by a culture of inclusion is ultimately about leaving behind a better world for our children. While Coca-Cola and America are both large institutions with imperfect pasts, imperfect presents, and imperfect futures, they are not so different from the individuals who compose them: We age, we grow, and hopefully, we learn, however slowly, to celebrate the beauty of the people around us and the world in which we live. Cheers.


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