We may mock conservatives over their silly reaction to the Coca-Cola ad, but we would also be fools to miss the much larger undercurrents of fear and uneasiness their overreaction represents.
Every empire has its equivalent of bread and circus – the combination of welfare provision and communal entertainment that buys off the public’s acceptance of the status quo – but few do the circus bit with as much pizzazz or production value as the United States. And in America, no show is as big as professional football’s Super Bowl.
From the schmaltzy patriotic opening replete with a reading of the Declaration of Independence to an on-hand armed forces color guard and choir, all is meant to convey the idea that the game is, in the words of one critic, “some kind of noble civic endeavor when it’s actually just an entertainment venture and moneymaking apparatus designed to rake in billions of dollars and screw your town out of stadium money.” The Super Bowl is, above all else, an American extravaganza without compare.
Especially, it should be said, when it comes to the television advertisements that finance the greatest of circuses. In an age of media fractionalization when it is rare for a television program to amass much in the way of the eyeballs that advertisers crave, the Super Bowl offers an extraordinary opportunity for companies to hawk everything from impotence pills to luxury cars and everything in between. Companies pay accordingly, at the price of $133,000 per second, to air ads that are often more entertaining than the game itself.
So it proved this year as Madison Avenue did its best to excite us with British movie villains (Jaguar), an adorable puppy (Budweiser), and ‘80s pop icons storming a Radio Shack. We laughed, we cried, and then, at least for some of us, we were outraged by a Coca-Cola ad that had children of different ethnicities singing the song ‘America the Beautiful’ in a series of different languages. It even, God forbid, featured a happy gay couple.
Why Coca-Cola could possibly think that a beautifully-made ode to wildly different kinds of people living together in peace and happiness through the magical power of carbonated sugar water would not anger people is difficult to understand. After all, we are now a country where even the most basic of public undertakings is viewed through such an all-encompassing lens of political polarization and right-wing paranoia that many now actually believe there is, incredibly, a real war on Christmas. So, at the very least given the ridiculous depths to which our political discourse has fallen, Coca-Cola should have known upfront what it was getting into.
If the world’s largest purveyor of soda pop didn’t get it before hand, it sure does now, as conservatives across the country have unloaded on the ad. Former Tea Party Republican congressman Allen West of Florida, for instance, said in a blog post that he was ‘disturbed’ that such an iconic, patriotic song should be sung in a language other than English. Fox News commentator Todd Starnes, looking to up the vitriol, went further by declaring on Twitter that Coke was now “the official soft drink of illegals crossing the border.”
Conservative twits, err… Twitter users, agreed, with many calling for a boycott against Coca-Cola for, in their words, “desecrating our national anthem.”
That “America the Beautiful” is not, in fact, our national anthem was apparently lost on them, but what was not lost on these cognitively challenged uber-nationalists was the fact that through some devilish trickery, one of America’s most sacred national hymns had somehow been turned against them. As one irate patriot noted, what was once “their” national anthem – again, hilarious – was now suddenly, “EVERYONE else’s,” too.
Even the conservative pope Rush Limbaugh weighed in on his daily radio program that aired the Monday after the Super Bowl. He sought to reassure his distressed flock by explaining Coke’s heresy as a simple miscalculation by its advertising team. Usually, said Limbaugh, “advertising people have their finger on the pulse of our culture, but wow, I got to take back everything I said about watching.”
Apparently, Coca-Cola and Madison Avenue, which together spend many millions of dollars tracking the tastes and preferences of American consumers on a near daily basis, had lost the pulse of the nation.
Limbaugh went further by asking whether Coke had not made a grave marketing error by taking such an approach to diversity.
“If you think the best way, if you are convinced that the best way to sell Coca-Cola to Americans is to sing “America the Beautiful” in multiple languages, then why don’t you produce the product with labels printed in ten different languages?” he asked. “Is that the way to sell Coca-Cola?”
What’s apparently lost on Limbaugh and the rest of the conservative movement is that this is indeed the way to sell Coca-Cola. Coke, after all, is a global brand recognized by billions of people around the world. It sells billions of dollars-worth of product in nearly every country in the world, and truly isolated is the place where one cannot quench one’s thirst with a frosty Coke-branded soda. Coca-Cola doesn’t just print up labels in 10 different languages; it prints labels in over 100 languages in over 200 countries.
Indeed, every day 1.8 billion servings of its beverages are consumed worldwide, most outside the U.S. In fact, the notion that Coca-Cola could even be considered an “American” company is itself a questionable proposition, as most of its profits now come from overseas. As reported by Coke’s Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent in the company’s 2013 third-quarter report, $7.441 billion – or nearly 80 percent – of the company’s net third-quarter profits before taxes came from countries and consumers outside the U.S. It is, by any stretch of the imagination, a global company first and foremost and an American one a distant second.
What’s more, so is nearly every other company of significant size and importance, a fact that seems to have escaped the notice of American nativists who blithely demand that a global company speak only in the idiom of American English. Coke and global corporations like it have burst forth, like Athena from the head of Zeus, from their respective national cradles as economic force that are mostly beyond the control of any one country. Being transnational, these firms thus view the world very differently than mere human beings. America to them is just one more regional market among many others, and the world economy they operate in is already, to borrow a term, a post-American one.
As a result, when these companies speak, they do so with a global audience in mind and out of necessity their brand of capitalism is one in which borders do not matter. Nations have devolved into marketing demographics and have economies where a German’s, Brazilian’s, Indian’s, or Chinese’s money is just as good, and sometimes better than, an American’s.
For American conservatives steeped in the lore of American exceptionalism that takes as a given that capitalism is inherently American, evidence of the growing disconnect between the transnational culture of globalized capital and the hallowed shibboleths of traditional American identity can be jarring. Suddenly, for those not paying attention, what was once so familiar is anything but, and even a simple soft drink can be seen as dark and intensely threatening.
The reason why Coke’s ad has infuriated so many on the political right is that now, for really the first time, major parts of the American economy, with brands that have long been associated with America itself, are openly accepting and celebrating a new, multicultural worldview where traditional cultures, boundaries, and identities mean little. Suddenly, being white, and male, and heterosexual, and Christian, and American is no longer enough to cause special attention to be paid to you by the powerful economic actors that dominate our lives and more or less determine our fates.
This new irrelevance, after so long being in the center of things, is both humiliating and terrifying for those reared on an unadulterated diet of American mythmaking about how great we here in America all are. After all, shorn of that special place at the heart of the global economy, what exactly is special or exceptional about, to use Sarah Palin’s phrase, “real” Americans and “real” America? The answer that Coke is giving is, it seems, not much.
As truthful as this answer might be, it cannot be accepted by those angry at the ad because myths about the exceptionalism of traditional America are the penny without which the purse of many Americans would empty. Beyond that is a deep-seated fear about one’s own real worth in an increasingly competitive world, and the unsettling idea that the despised other that one has been taught since birth that one is superior to is, in fact, better than you in a way that can be clearly revealed through free and open competition. Prejudice is thus pride, inverted.
Anger over the ad, therefore, is really the manifestation of an inferiority complex common to those who revel in the type of low-brow, jingoistic nationalism that is peddled by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. They know that deep down their success and position wasn’t so much earned through hard work as inherited by virtue of being socially privileged. Cognitive dissonance won’t allow one to accept this brutal reality and so a defensive, jealous anger directed as those who might compete with you on a level playing field results. Those who attempt to point out the truth are, in turn, shouted down as being that greatest of all sins – un-American.
In hindsight, what Coca-Cola did was break the taboo on challenging these myths in such a highly visible way. It was an overt declaration by Coke of what their profit and loss statements have long said but which they could not say openly for fear of alienating people who now no longer matter but once upon a time did – that Coke’s world is multicultural and global and much, much larger than the clannish, parochial ways of small-town, white-bread America. Their America, like the world as a whole, is incomparably bigger.
Coca-Cola may once have been a product of these now forgotten people, but it has transmogrified itself into something very different and is much better off because as a result. Coke, having gone global, is bigger, richer, more powerful and more diverse than it ever was before, and it has in the process become a true titan of transnational capitalism. Should it be surprising then that having benefitted so much from escaping the chains of nation and nationalism that so many in our country still cling to, Coke should now decide to celebrate the culture of borderless, multicultural capitalism it helped to create?
Coke has prospered greatly from it and is eager for all of us to join no matter how frightening that prospect may be for those of us deeply worried about what our place in this brave new world may actually turn out to be. Coke and companies like it are implicitly asking us to abandon these older notions of identity at a time when economic circumstances are out of necessity forcing many to hold onto them all the more tightly for fear of falling even further into the abyss. All the while, it should be said, promising nothing but its product in return.
We may thus rightly mock conservatives over their silly reaction to the Coca-Cola ad – it is just soda – but we would also be fools to miss the much larger undercurrents of fear and uneasiness their overreaction nonetheless represents. If we do that, then we just might find that the last laugh could in fact be on us.