‘Beautiful’ anthem has brought out the ugly side of the US

Coca-Cola’s ‘America Is Beautiful’ has been called anti-American. Is this Super Bowl madness?

Language barrier: from the Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad

Language barrier: from the Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad

Sat, Feb 8, 2014, 01:00

I don’t say this too loudly or too often, but I am oddly fascinated by the Super Bowl. Not fascinated enough to watch the thing, admittedly: I think I’m safe in saying the Castletown Donkey Derby offers the purer sporting entertainment.

But from an anthropological perspective, the spectacle affords an unrivalled insight into the modern American psyche: and how can anyone resist that?

It is the potent combination of unfettered consumerism and unbridled machismo that makes the Super Bowl an almost too-perfect metaphor for the US itself. Certainly, the distended, seemingly neverending bout of high-impact violence played out under arcane rules, with vast numbers of warrior-players imperilling themselves while following the diktats of hard-jawed men on the sidelines, could hardly be bettered as a parable of the US’s military follies.

But it is the Super Bowl’s embodiment of pure consumerism that really fascinates. Each year, there is as much attention paid to the commercials that fill out the protracted broadcast as to the game itself. Every aspect of the advertising fest is ripe for analysis, from the gargantuan cost of each spot ($4 million for 30 seconds) to the celebrity endorsements (Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Scarlett Johansson, the kid from Beasts of the Southern Wild).

Increasingly, however, the most ambitious ads are not just about providing 60-odd seconds of entertainment, but about expressing an inspirational vision for the country itself, and each product’s essential place in that vision. In those slots, advertising transcends mere commerce, or even sport, and becomes a mass countrywide act of extravagant self-admiration.

Which is why the vociferous backlash against Coca-Cola’s ad is at once predictable and kind of alarming. A delightfully shot, minute-long celebration of American diversity set to a soundtrack featuring people singing America The Beautiful sounds like exactly the sort of slightly twee, patriotic commercial that the occasion demanded.

But there was a big problem with the rendition of that faithful 19th-century anthem: it was sung by lots of different people . . . in lots of different languages. With what in retrospect appears to be an overly optimistic message to accompany the ad, Coke tweeted: “The only thing more beautiful than this country are the people who live here.” That’s not universally true, as it quickly turned out.

The reaction on the internet from certain proudly patriotic corners was barely restrained rage, with no shortage of indignant monoglots demanding to know how Coke had the temerity to allow America the Beautiful to be sung in other languages.

Here’s a small selection for our ever-so-slightly sanctimonious delight: “I feel un-American for drinking Coke today”; “That kinda summed up why America is going down the toilet right now”; “Coke your [sic] in America where we speak American”; “Nice to see that Coke likes to sing an AMERICAN song in the terrorist’s language. Way to go Coke. You can leave America”; and “Coca Cola is the official soft drink of illegals crossing the border.”

Overall, this reaction was appalling and, let’s be honest, pretty hilarious: the sight of misplaced patriotism can be downright hysterical, in certain contexts. (But we must not call it xenophobia, given the legal climate these days.)

Now it’s not as if Coca-Cola is trying a new approach here. After all, this is the company that told us, “I’d like to teach the world to sing, I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” the most literally saccharine vision of capitalist globalisation the world has ever seen. And this ad was also a concise illustration of how the soft drink functions as one of the most potent forms of soft power, an iconic American brand loved in every corner of the planet. But it seems that for some people, an occasion such as the Super Bowl demands a display of stars and stripes-waving jingoism undiluted by any signs of tolerance for multiculturalism.

The anti-diversity reaction to the Coke ad is sadly reflective of certain political sensitivities in the US, with some lobby groups trying to have English recognised as the country’s official language, a campaign related to the perennially divisive issue of immigration reform.

However, it’s not as if the US is the only country with an element that struggles to accept what it deems to be “other”: the treatment of homosexuals in Russia is a bleakly depressing example.

But if you need cheering up about the state of the human condition, you could just spend some time watching all the other Super Bowl ads – lots of them are funny, beautiful, clever, ingenious and touching. Like I said, the whole spectacle offers an unrivalled insight into the modern American psyche.


dodwyer@irishtimes.com


Shane Hegarty is on leave

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