#AmericaIsBeautifulIsProblematic: Coca-Cola’s Use of America’s Beauty
Amanda Ciafone / University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
As The Coca-Cola Company debuted its commercial featuring a multilingual rendition of “America the Beautiful” during the Super Bowl a spate of racist and homophobic tweets grew on Twitter with the hashtag #SpeakAmerican, some even calling for a boycott of the company’s products. Radio and television coverage amplified attention to the commercial and the social media backlash. And progressives took to both old and new media to defend the company’s message, pointing out some essential facts: the U.S. has never had an official language, but it has always had a multilingual populace.
The Super Bowl and the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics – where the ad has since been reprised – are televisual holidays, “media events”1 that are some of the few remaining moments in this digital era in which advertisers are guaranteed that huge swaths of the U.S. public will be watching the same thing at the same time. So this commercial has performed a branded representation of the diversity of American identities on a national stage.
The Coke controversy reminds us that ads produce meaning beyond their promotion of products. It was moving to see Americans of different races, ethnicities, and languages singing one of the nation’s anthems in celebration of the beauty of the diversity of the US populace and landscape. It poignantly captured the nation’s multicultural heritage and its ever-changing face. And if some in the audience were not ready to come to terms with that history or see that future, media representations in forms like advertising can contribute over time to shifts in public perception.
But we have to remember that this media representation of people of color does not come with social, political or economic representational power in equal measure. And, we must question to what ends it serves. Lest we forget, multimillion-dollar soft drink commercials are not made to produce social change. Rather they are instrumental forms of communication, meant to serve one purpose above all else: to increase sales.
Pushing Progressive Buttons: Social (Good?) Media Marketing
In an ever more saturated media environment, advertisers are working harder to make their commercials media events in themselves. There is a short shelf life for the buzz around a Super Bowl ad. According to industry research,2 few of the advertised brands can be recalled by viewers after the game. So corporations and their advertising agencies carefully strategize the content and release of ads in the hopes that they have a viral life afterwards. There are ads for the ads, with pre-releases and short segments to spark interest in the live broadcast. Social media is used to “tease” an ad and create buzz, enlisting consumers themselves in the hype machine. And commercial content pushes the limits of the emotional, comical, or just plain strange for greatest impact, all in the hopes that viewers themselves will invest in the brand by spreading the advertising to others.
For a week before “It’s Beautiful” debuted, The Coca-Cola Company was building anticipation around the ad. It posted a video of an Anglo-Latino family featured in the commercial talking about their hopes for their son to grow up without prejudice. It introduced the #AmericaIsBeautiful hashtag and asked people on Twitter to respond with reasons why America is beautiful. The day before she was to sing “America the Beautiful” at the Super Bowl, Queen Latifah, an active product promoter on Twitter, tweeted praise of Coca-Cola. When she finished singing on game day, Coca-Cola tweeted congratulations and teased that it would try to sing it even better in the second quarter. As the ad aired live, Coca-Cola released it online, encouraging social media followers to spread the associated #AmericaIsBeautiful and send in “selfies” so their own faces could be used in online advertising as well as on the Coca-Cola billboard in Times Square.
The night of the Super Bowl over a dozen Coca-Cola employees gathered in a “news room” with a giant wall of screens displaying the game alongside various social media sites, “like #CNN on election night,” one creative executive remarked. From this command center marketing specialists could tweet, retweet, post, and respond to consumers’ reactions in real time, increasing the viral value of the commercial. Coca-Cola’s marketing team used various outlets to disseminate interviews with the cast and other behind-the-scenes videos, asked people to vote for the commercial as the best of Super Bowl night, engaged viewers in “conversation” through social media sites thus multiplying responses to the ad, released the recording of the song on Spotify, and even circulated a parodic rendition of the ad and a meme mocking conservative reaction to it, all with the intent of extending its viral marketing lifespan.
Twitter feed of Jonathan Mildenhall, Vice President of Global Advertising Strategy and Creative Excellence at the Coca-Cola Company
As some responded to the Coca-Cola ad with hate, a vastly larger group came to the company’s defense, circulating the commercial even more widely and passionately. Coca-Cola no doubt factored in the potential for xenophobic and homophobic vitriol from the Twitter-verse and the prospect that the political momentum from conservative reaction could be easily off-balanced by progressive response to prolong and amplify the impact of the commercial. The year before, the racist reaction to the interracial family in a Cheerios ad led to its viral circulation and a outpouring of support (leading Cheerios to reprise the family in its own 2014 Super Bowl ad). The day after the Super Bowl, Coca-Cola and Cheerios tweeted their appreciation for each other and their more inclusive representations of American families, a display of both solidarity and self-congratulations in mobilizing progressive politics to promote their brands.
Exactly one week before this year’s Super Bowl, Coca-Cola’s Twitter account introduced #AmericaIsBeautiful with a post linked to the company’s iconic “I’d to Teach the World to Sing” ad. In 1971, only a few years after Coca-Cola’s first integrated ads, it featured a multiracial group of young people dressed to represent different cultures of the world singing in sixties overtones and “perfect harmony” as a “United Chorus of the World” about love, generosity, and Coca-Cola consumption across difference. In the context of anti-war protests, student occupations in demand for ethnic studies departments, frustrations with the pace of civil rights reforms, active revolutionary movements, and a growing anti-corporate and anti-capitalist critique, The Coca-Cola Company portrayed a multiracial world order brought peacefully together through the universal consumption of the global commodity. It thus prefigured a neoliberal era in which Coca-Cola not only legitimated itself as a global universal through its representation of difference, but played a major role in establishing a global market where it could take advantage of international tax havens to shield its profits, consolidate bottlers and downsize its workforce, and push back against government regulation of its production and products, exploiting and producing racial, national, and class hierarchies in the process of capital accumulation. At the same time, the company has moved to fill the resulting gaps in state provision of social services and regulation with voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives and related marketing in order to keep public criticism at bay and forward its brand image.
As in “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” “It’s Beautiful” employs multiculturalism to package Coca-Cola’s brand, making racial difference into a commodity much like its drinks. Multiculturalism becomes a marker of the moral legitimacy and universality of corporate capitalism, which hinders critiques of it, while also serving as a strategy to extend it through differences in racial and class privilege. The company’s press release explained that the ad’s “overall message of inclusion” is that “Coke is for everyone.” This message is increasingly important to Coca-Cola’s bottom line because, in fact, Coke consumption is no longer for everyone.
Low-income people, people of color, and the young (ages 18-29),4 have become the mainstays of the soda industry, as wealthier and white consumers moved to lower calorie drinks. After decades of neglect in advertising by the soda companies, in the last three decades African American and Latino consumers have received heavy doses of targeted marketing in their communities. The Coca-Cola Company has blanketed stores and restaurants in low-income neighborhoods with ads, sponsored soccer teams, basketball tournaments, and streetball events, used cultural festivals and historic celebrations (like Black History Month) to market its products, and funded organizations like the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation.
Coca-Cola is as delicious, refreshing, and energizing as advertised: it is a classic “proletarian hunger-killer,” as anthropologist Sidney Mintz described the caffeinated sugary drinks that have cheaply fueled the working class and poor through their days.5 The company’s longtime strategy has been to locate its products “always within an arm’s length of desire” and, if such desire is lacking, producing it as well through advertising that associates its drinks with no less than happiness, love, and the social good. With working class, Latino, and African American communities awash with such bubbly sweetness, U.S. public health advocates have decried epidemic rates of obesity and diabetes.
Meanwhile, efforts to remove sodas from schools, limit product sizes, or tax sugary drinks to fund health and wellness programs have faced hardnosed lobbying from the soda industry. The industry has funded seemingly grassroots organizations like “New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes,” to mobilize anti-tax sentiments and critiques of the “parent state,” arguing that new soda taxes would limit consumer choice, paternalistically remove individual responsibility from consumers, and regressively burden those with low incomes. They argue further that the new taxes would result in economic losses for businesses that sell sodas in poor communities.
The beverage industry is currently focused on Mexico, where President Enrique Peña Nieto’s proposed peso-per-liter soda tax went into effect on January 1st. There is a lot at stake for the soda companies and Mexicans. Mexico vies with the U.S. for highest per capita soda consumption in the world and has become the country with the highest obesity rate. As U.S. consumption of soda has been steadily dropping for almost a decade, growing international markets have become even more important to the industry. Industry and public health analysts await to see what effect the tax will have on consumption and health outcomes. Meanwhile, the soda giants and their bottlers are strenuously working advertising and public relations strategies to retain a positive image in the minds of consumers and public officials. Their framing of those proposing soda regulations and tax initiatives as “anti-business,” however, faces the challenge of the identities of the two most prominent political leaders to call for soda taxes – media mogul and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Nieto, who recently amended the Mexican constitution to open up the once public oil, gas and electricity industries to private sector investment.
The soda giants have also sought to redirect the health focus from the number of calories taken in, to the number worked out through exercise. They have put millions of dollars into partnerships around health and recreation, sponsored sports programs, and, of course, put billions of dollars into advertising that associates the drink with athletics, like Coca-Cola’s youth football-themed ad for the Super Bowl and the company’s long-time sponsorship of the Olympics. Coca-Cola’s financial support for medical organizations such as the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, the National Black Nurses Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians associates the company and its brands with those medical professionals6 who are meant to serve society’s health needs.
Finally, however brief, the advertisement’s inclusion of a gay couple and their two children was historic: the first time a LGBT family had been featured in a Super Bowl ad. The commercial took on additional significance when a longer :90 version aired during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. LGBT rights activists had decried The Coca-Cola Company’s inaction in the face of Russia’s anti-gay laws while sponsoring the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Again, this visibility was as much instrumental as principled.
America’s future full of young people of color and families defined by love rather than heterosexuality is absolutely beautiful, and Coca-Cola’s representation of it, powerful. The question is, when will they get real social, political and economic power, as well as media representations that use them to sell fizzy drinks and the corporate status quo.
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- Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History (Harvard UP, 1994). [↩]
- Jack Neff, “Study: 80% of Super Bowl Ads Don’t Help Sales,” Advertising Age, January 6, 2014. [↩]
- Jodi Melamed, “The Spirit of Neoliberalism: From Racial Liberalism to Neoliberal Multiculturalism,” Social Text, December 1, 2006. [↩]
- Elizabeth Mendes, “Regular Soda Popular With Young, Nonwhite, Low-Income,” Gallup.com, August 15, 2013 [↩]
- Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York, NY: Penguin, 1986), 196. [↩]
- Julie Deardorff, “Critics Pounce on Coke, Pepsi Health Initiatives,” The Chicago Tribune, February 5, 2012. [↩]