February 3, 2014
I’m not a Coca-Cola consumer in general—most of my soda dollars (which are considerable) go to Pepsico. I just like the taste better. Oh, I’m not one of those who would rather drink water than a Diet Coke; that would be silly. I’ll drink a Diet Coke if Diet Pepsi is not available, but on the whole, brand me Ms. Pepsi.
However, during the Super Bowl yesterday, Coca-Cola did something that gained my attention. It gained the attention of a lot of folks, actually, because naturally it happened during one of the biggest television-viewing events of the year. What did they do? They aired a commercial. It was a simple, feel-good advertisement meant to celebrate all the harmony and diversity in our country. Or, if you ask others, it was yet another example of the insidious and intentional un-doing of all that makes this a great country.
Any guesses which side of the metaphorical fence I fall on in this debate? Because there was a debate, of sorts: an immediate flurry of social media posts of both support of and outrage at the advertisement. The issue at hand? The commercial showed several successive vignettes of folks singing “America the Beautiful”. The actors in the commercial were young and old, from the city and from the country, and represented several ethnicities. And they were singing the song in lots of different languages. It started off in English, and ended in English as well, but in between, several other languages were represented. Beautiful, sweet renditions of people singing about the country that they love.
But they weren’t all singing in English, which was the heart of the matter. I saw Facebook posts which read, “You’ve done it now, Coca-Cola!” and “I guarantee you not one serviceman died in the service of his country so that you could speak another language!”, among others. Well now, I’m not so sure about that. Since when is freedom defined as being required to speak one language? I’m not saying that folks who live in the United States shouldn’t learn English; I think it’s the way one learns to navigate successfully in this society. But do I think that means they must forsake any other language they might know? Effectively separate themselves from a culture, a history, a family they also call their own? How arrogant and single-minded to want to negate the multiplicity of culture that is what makes this country so great.
Mind you, I am not here to engage in the “Official Language” debate, or the “English Only Ballot” debate. Those are separate conversations that involve so much. Economics. Opportunities for upward mobility. Business. An informed citizenry. Even the idea of nationalism and patriotism. These issues and more all figure into the discussion of whether or not we should call for an “Official Language” of the people, and honestly, there are good, rational points to be made on both sides of that argument. We are not, however, discussing that issue. We are discussing how offended we are (or are not) that Coca-Cola dared to air an advertisement where people were singing—celebrating—this beautiful country in just a handful of the languages that represent the vast multicultural landscape of its inhabitants.
I am not offended. I don’t think one has to forego one language to embrace another. When one speaks Spanish, for example, where is it written that it means he or she refuses to learn English? Or is somehow ungrateful to have the opportunities they have in this country or is being disrespectful to servicemen who protect the freedoms afforded us here? This is not an either/or, black and white world we live in. The richness of experiences, including cultural and social experiences, is what makes this country beautiful, not the absence of difference. Not whitewashed sameness.
Coca-Cola got my attention, and the attention of a great many others, for better or worse. And the company knew that it would, and aired the commercial anyway. They knew they might (and in fact will) lose some customers because of it. They decided to celebrate diversity and simplicity by highlighting one of our country’s beloved ballads, letting many voices shine, rather than let divisiveness of potential detractors sway them, and for that I have great respect. They may not always get my soda dollars, but yesterday, they did earn my respect.