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America the Beautiful and Diverse: Theological Reflections on Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl Ad

Coca-Cola

Most of the time we do not thoroughly analyze television commercials, from a theological perspective or otherwise, but the temptation is hard to resist when it comes to the advertisements broadcast during the Super Bowl, given their large numbers of viewers and the huge amounts spent on them. One of the most talked about commercials from the Super Bowl was produced by Coca-Cola. In the commercial, female voices sing “America the Beautiful” not only in English, but also in Spanish, Tagalog, Mandarin, Hindi, Hebrew, Keres, Senegalese-French, and Arabic. As the music plays, we are shown diverse people engaging in recreational activities and, yes, drinking Coke.

The message of the commercial is clear and moving. The United States of America is a diverse nation, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically, and this diversity is beautiful, just as the natural landscape described in the song is beautiful. Making up a multi-lingual household ourselves, my wife and I got a little choked up when we watched the commercial.

Predictably, however, this was not everyone’s reaction to the commercial. Many viewers, whose Tweets were recorded on the Public Shaming Tumblr site, were offended by the commercial and even threatened to stop consuming Coke products. Most complained that as an American song, “America the Beautiful” should be sung in English, or even “in American.” More offensively, some insisted that the people portrayed in the commercial, presumably because they are not white, were not “American,” or are “foreigners” (ironically, Keres is one of the languages of the Pueblo people of the U.S. Southwest), and most offensively of all, some referred to the Arab-Americans in the commercial as “terrorists” and to others using racial epithets I will not repeat.

My purpose is not really to argue with those who were offended by the commercial, although it is worth pointing out three things:

1) The message of the commercial is quite clearly reflected in Catholic teaching. For example, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that the essence of a “people”, a nation, is “the sharing of life and values, which is the source of communion on the spiritual and moral level,” and yet, in countries such as the United States with ethnic or cultural minorities, “minorities have the right to maintain their culture, including their language, and to maintain their religious beliefs, including worship services” (##386-87). There is no contradiction in people of diverse cultures and languages participating in the sharing of life and values of a single community.

2) Historically, the United States has always been a linguistically diverse nation. Earlier waves of immigrants and their families spoke German, Italian, Polish, Yiddish, and so forth for generations after they initially arrived in the U.S. Within the Catholic Church, non-English languages (not counting Latin!) were used in prayers and schools well into the middle of the twentieth century, and in some cases even later. Of course English has always been the predominant language in the United States, but to simply equate “American” with “English” is historically false.

3) Hidden behind the offensiveness of the critics’ comments is a legitimate concern for the cohesiveness of our sense of community in the United States, the “sharing of life and values” mentioned in the Compendium. It is certainly the case that cultural and linguistic diversity makes social cohesion more difficult. But the relationship between cultural and linguistic diversity and community cohesiveness is complex, and it is simply not the case that cultural and linguistic diversity automatically lead to isolated enclaves. For example, all of the girls featured as singers in the commercial are bilingual. Whether or not we can forge a socially cohesive yet culturally diverse nation is a choice that depends on an act of political will.

This last point leads to my real purpose for this post. The advertisement is daring and powerful, but I am nervous about the idea of Coca-Cola serving as the spokesperson for the beauties of a culturally diverse yet united America. In his 2004 book Who Are We?, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington expressed this same concern for cohesion now expressed less elegantly by Coca-Cola’s critics. Huntington argues that the executives of multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola

 are fixated on the world as an economic unit. For them home is the global market, not the national community. . . . As the global market replaces the national community, the national citizen gives way to the global consumer. (pp. 267-68)

It is no coincidence that Coca-Cola has for decades been a leading symbol of the culturally homogenizing effects of market capitalism. In the years after World War II, French intellectuals complained of the “coca-colonization” of their culture through American market influence. In more recent years, Coca-Cola, along with McDonald’s and Disney, has represented the leading edge of American-led consumerist globalization.

Is the Super Bowl ad really that different? In an increasingly diverse American demographic, it only makes marketing sense to appeal to that diversity. Behind the inspiring message, the commercial resorts to the same gauzy, sentimental patriotism found in some of the other Super Bowl advertisements. What is it, exactly, that brings people together as Americans? As far as I can tell, the groups featured in the commercial remain isolated and never come together in any shared endeavor. The only thing that unites them is the consumption of Coke. To be an American is to be a consumer. Really, Coca-Cola’s ad is not all that different from McDonald’s 2003 “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign, which also appealed to linguistic diversity but was more unabashed in its celebration of the consumption and enjoyment of the product.

My point here is not to criticize Coca-Cola; I probably account for half of Coke’s market in the Dubuque area. My point is that Coca-Cola’s ad allows us to forget the ongoing act of political will that is necessary to forge cohesion out of our cultural and linguistic diversity in our local communities and our nation. Where does this act of political will begin? As Christians, we have to believe that it begins with the Body of Christ. In our increasingly diverse churches, we must continue the process that has already begun of worshipping together and working together as a communion in diversity, despite the difficulties we face along the way. We must go out of our churches and volunteer to teach English as a second language, or learn a second (or third, or fourth) language ourselves. We need to be conscious of what resources in non-English languages are available in public places like schools and government offices, and if needed push to make them more available. We must learn to appreciate the cultures of our neighbors. We need to advocate for immigration reform so that our neighbors from other countries seeking a better life can more fully integrate into the social and political life of our nation. This list is far from complete, but it is actions like these that will help craft a more beautiful America characterized by a diverse “communion on the spiritual and moral level.”

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Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. He is the author of The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011) and has published articles in Political Theology, the Journal of Catholic Social Thought, Horizons, and the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics.
  • http://www.arkellogg.com/ Anita Kellogg

    Eloquently expressed, as usual. However, I am really confused by the Huntington reference as it was in that very book that he both expressed very anti-immigrant (particularly Latin American) and anti-Catholic views. In fact, it was the Catholic traditions that these particular immigrants were bringing with them that he argued was ruining America and threatening our nation’s future.

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