There are few brands more global, and more American, than Coca-Cola. Its red-and-white label and glass curves are a universal symbol, an American beachhead on every inhabited inch of the Earth. Like the sugary stuff or hate it, its advertising has long been about a certain ideal–the idea that people are many and one, united by simple things like a smile, a song, and a Coke. It was Coke, after all, that brought us “I’d like to teach the world to sing”–not “I’d like to teach the contiguous 48 states plus Alaska and Hawaii to sing.”
Coca Cola’s entry into the Super Bowl ad campaign had a message that was, as it were, Coke Classic: it celebrated the many kinds, colors, lifestyles and origins of Americans who are nonetheless one. Over a scene of these many Americans, it played a patriotic song: not the National Anthem, but the more accessible, singable “America the Beautiful.” It showed us a panoply of American faces, young, old, brown, white, straight, gay (it included what are said to be the first gay parents depicted in a Super Bowl ad), in cowboy hats and hijabs, playing, eating, and exploring all-American vistas.
It was maybe a little sappy, but it was also, well, beautiful, as was the music, sung in a succession of single voices and languages.
It was that last aspect that unfortunately, brought out America the Ugly, at least on some parts of the Internet. “WTF?” asked one post on Twitter. “@CocaCola has America the Beautiful being sung in different languages in a #SuperBowl commercial? We speak ENGLISH here, IDIOTS.” Some of the vitriol may have been satire for all I know, but there was much too much for that to explain all of the “English or GTFO” sentiment–not all of it in impeccable English itself. To wit: “Dear @CocaCola : America the beautiful is sang in English. Piss off. #DontFuckWithUs.” (To be fair, not every Tweet brought up by a search on “Coca Cola English” agreed: “Coca Cola brings the commercial of the night: America the Beautiful sung in Spanish, English, Arabic, and other languages. Beautiful.”)
The xenophobic protesters had one thing right: we do speak English in America. We speak it on official business and in Super Bowl broadcasts; we use it in publications like this one.
But that’s not all we do. People like my immigrant mother and her immigrant sisters learn English as adults and raise their kids to speak it, and also speak French and Arabic at family get-togethers and on phone calls. We speak English in school and Spanish with grandparents and Spanglish with friends. We speak Creole and Chinese and Tagalog sitting down to family dinners–maybe with a bottle or two of Coke around the table, which is why Coke is smart to recognize this.
We come to America, in other words, and we become American–but we don’t erase everything else that we were before, we don’t forget our cultures and languages as if they never existed, and we don’t hide them as if they’re shameful or less than patriotic. We bring them out and share them, and they make this country better and stronger. America isn’t weakened because people don’t submit to a monoculture; it’s strong because it can absorb the peoples and aspirations and talents of the rest of the world without erasing their cultures.
Which is the message this ad shared (besides “Buy Coke”)–it was not a rejection of English, but a celebration of it, and series of tongues, representing all corners of the Earth, resolving in a final line sung in the country’s lingua franca of English and the tag: “America Is Beautiful.”
And it is, even if some people can listen to that chorus and hear nothing but noise.