By Lee A. Daniels
What could anyone who loves America find offensive about Americans singing one of the nation’s unofficial national anthems, “America the Beautiful?”
Well, Coca-Cola, the consumer products giant, found out when it unveiled a 60-second commercial during the great American advertising showcase, the Super Bowl. The ad featured a diverse cast of Americans singing snippets of the song in English – and seven other languages: Spanish, Hindi, Keres (spoken by the Keres Pueblo people of New Mexico), Tagalog(spoken by a majority of the citizens of the Philippines, and many Filipino-Americans), Senegalese, French and Hebrew.
Some other Americans found this objectionable.
Someone identifying themselves as Scott Cartledge tweeted: “What was that Coke? This is America. We speak American.” A Stephanie Weaver insisted: “Well, I won’t be drinking #coke anymore. We speak English in the #USA. Get over it.” And MGoBlue92 huffed: “Excuse me Coke, but your commercial is insulting, we speak English here.”
Some of the Twitterverse critics objected to the commercial’s including a gay couple in its panoramic scan of Americans enjoying the soft drink. But the large majority of the outraged seemed to focus on the song being sung in different languages.
That included Allen West, the Black conservative blowhard who’s been scratching for public attention since losing his Congressional seat last year. He huffed that the ad could lead to the “Balkanization” of America.
It’s worth noting that at least some conservatives added their voices to the storm of support for the commercial that quickly deluged Twitter in response to the criticism. Influential blogger Erick Erickson rebuked the critics, writing, “People, the Coke ad was well done. This is so crazy that there is outrage over it. E Pluribus Unum isn’t English either.” (The phrase is Latin.) And the Heritage Foundation tweeted, “Did anyone else like the @CocaCola commercial as much as we did? What a beautiful nation we have!”
But it was clear that for its critics the Coke commercial had stark and unwelcome demographic and political implications. Conservative Michael Patrick Leahy wrote revealing gibberish: “When [Coca-Cola] used such an iconic song, one often sung in churches on the 4th of July that represents the old ‘E Pluribus Unum’ view of how American society is integrated, to push multiculturalism down our throats, it’s no wonder conservatives were outraged.”
Many no doubt caught the unintended irony of Leahy’s praising the “old” way American society was “integrated” – when, of course, the old American society was rigidly segregated – as a counterpoint to America’s multiracial and multicultural society of today.
In other words, Coke’s “America the Beautiful” commercial is just the latest in a long line of flash-points that constitute part of the intense national debate about the changing demographic character of the United States.
Make no mistake about it: Coca-Cola, the capitalist powerhouse, was acting in its own bottom-line interests by appealing to growing “emerging markets” of consumers within the USA and abroad. But, as the modern history of consumer capitalism makes clear, one consequence of corporations’ unceasing search for greater profits can be their helping to socially empower the people who make up the emerging markets.
So, just as businesses in the 1960s began to ignore the racist objections some Whites raised to Black Americans appearing in mainstream advertisements and commercials, so businesses today have learned that there’s a great economic and social profit in recognizing the reality of America’s social landscape – and consumer marketplace.
That point was underscored, revealingly, by the inclusion among the other Super Bowl ads of the “second edition,” if you will, of the commercial for Cheerios cereal featuring a Black-American husband, his White-American wife, and their biracial daughter.
You’ll recall that when the first Cheerios ad featuring this “commercial family” appeared last spring, it immediately drew a barrage of racist comments in the Twitterverse – which, in turn, was quickly overwhelmed thousands and thousands of tweets of support.
This time around the General Mills’ (maker of Cheerios) had the father announcing to the daughter she would soon have a baby brother. There were some noticeable racist responses on Twitter to the ad; but advertising agencies and experts who gauge viewer reactions to commercials found the negative reaction far less than that of last spring.
The insight the story of the Cheerios commercials offers was actually expressed – in the negative – by the other remark Allen West made about the Coca-Cola “America the Beautiful” commercial. West said: “If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing [‘America the Beautiful’] in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl by a company as American as they come – doggone we are on the road to perdition.”
Suppose we change that silly statement to read: If we can be proud enough as a country to value Americans singing “America the Beautiful” in multiple languages in a commercial by a company as American as they come—doggone, we’ll be on the road to renewed greatness.
If we can do that, then, no matter what the language, we’ll all be singing in tune.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.