Super Bowl Ads, Multi-Culturalism, and What it Means to Be American

Super Bowl ads usually stir up controversy the way the Grammy’s always do: with decency-insulting displays of poor taste. Not this year (aside from the halftime show, anyway). Take for instance the Coca-Cola commercial that won the award for “Super Bowl XLVIII’s Most Controversial Ad.” Yawn.

I can’t believe people were upset over this one. I can actually. Because people love drama, and they’re stupid. But apparently the Super Bowl was so boring and lacking in drama that people started taking out their unfulfilled longing for competition on Super Bowl ads. Maybe you’ve seen the Coca-Cola ad in question. Excerpts of “America the Beautiful” are sung in different languages while a typically multicultural landscape of people unfolds on screen. This was apparently intended to represent the diversity of the American population. To be honest, the commercial was sappy and politically correct, but I really did not find it offensive. At all.

Critics of the ad seemed to be angered by its use of the song “America the Beautiful.” Plenty of ads are multicultural. In fact, most of them are. But this ad struck a dissonant chord because, in some sense, people thought it was telling them that America wasn’t theirs anymore.

Most Super Bowl ads are all about selling the mostly male audience an identity. Whether it’s gritty cowboy, suave playboy, humorous jock, life of the party, everyday hero, or any of a million permutations of the “ideal” you, commercials sell you an idea of yourself or the group to which you belong. Coca-Cola’s big mistake was in underestimating middle America’s currently growing xenophobia.

Illegal immigration and foreign terrorism have made Americans in general very wary of “outsiders” and very conscious of the erosion of the exclusively “American” identity. Who are we now? We don’t know. But most average Americans don’t want our version of America to be destroyed by malicious terrorists or sapped by parasitic immigrants. We feel like we are under attack. And we won’t stand for it apparently.

Other Super Bowl ads seemed to be tipping their hats to that reality. Note the Chrysler commercial with Bob Dylan. It starts with the line: “Is there anything more American than America?” And it goes on from there, moulding a vision of the ideal American America: “You can’t import the heart and soul of every man and woman working on the line. . . . the one thing you can’t import from anywhere else: American pride. . . . Let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.” Right. An Italian-owned company sold out by the most anti-American president in the history of the US is going to tell us what is and is not American? This is obviously the message people were more interested in hearing, but it doesn’t seem like people were thinking very hard about the substance behind the sales pitch.

This whole thing is backwards. We could interpret the Coca-Cola ad an entirely different way if we weren’t so irritable. What if all those people singing “America the Beautiful” weren’t actually immigrants? What if they were all people in different countries singing the praise of America in their own language? Maybe they were stoked about having a Coke, one of America’s most successful exports, and wanted to show appreciation to its country of origin? The Coca-Cola ad could easily be interpreted as an homage to the exportable quality of the American dream. If you wanted to interpret it that way. America used to view itself differently.

Coca-Cola is a hugely international company. It is part of the Americanization of the world. The contentious commercial could actually be considered a tribute to corporate imperialism or American exceptionalism if one had the desire to read it that way. Or it’s just multi-cultural kumbaya. But let’s not forget that the Chrysler commercial is just as disingenuous. Neither of these ads are trying to say anything. They’re trying to sell something. And perhaps in that way, they are both equally American.

We used to be less sensitive about our identity. The Statue of Liberty (a gift from France that celebrated America’s place as the refuge for the world’s refuse) would have been rejected by our current xenophobes as “un-American.” We were outraged with Coca-Cola for telling us that America was in reality a hodgepodge of cultural and historical influences living in splendorous diversity. No. We want a singularly “American” America. Whatever that is. It has something to do with pride apparently. And cars. I’m not sure.

I find the vehemence concerning the nature of America to be as strange as the discussion of what the English language is. English is the muttiest of all languages. Ever. (What other language would allow a word like “muttiest”?) Do you realize how many words English has just flatly stolen from other languages? It’s great. We like a word; we take it. English isn’t a monolithic language. It’s the best of a bunch of languages.

And, as an aside, perhaps all of these people harping about the primacy of the English language should honor it better by using it well. It’s hilarious to read these pro-English commenters just butchering the English language with grammatical errors, misspellings, sentence fragments, and heterodox capitalization. It’s like a lecherous philanderer lecturing his mistress on the beauty and sacredness of marriage. Silly. And gross.

Much of America’s strength has come from our lack of national identity. We’ve recreated ourselves dozens of times. Our lack of monovocal cultural solidarity has made it possible for us to achieve difficult things in unlikely ways. We don’t care what we look like to the rest of the world (or at least we used to not care). We didn’t used to be a vain, pure-bred poodle. And that was good. I hate poodles.

Bottom line, don’t throw in your lot with the reactionists who bashed on the Coca-Cola ad and praised the Chrysler ad. The reality is that advertisements, Super Bowl ads included, are trying to sell you something. Chrysler predicted how the average football viewer feels better than Coca-Cola did. But neither of them should be allowed to define what it means to be American. If anything, these two ads just confirm that “what it means to be American” is in transition again. And we are all suffering from a serious crisis of identity.