The Super Bowl Coke Ad and Cultural Relativism

The Super Bowl is the premiere venue for TV commercials.  For a long time, people found the ads more of a draw than the one-sided football contests, a traditional lamentably revived in Sunday's game.

But advertising is as much about culture as it is about the product being pitched, and predictably, the cultural messages people think they see are grounds for controversy.  In 2012, Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” ad featuring Clint Eastwood was widely seen among conservatives and Republicans as an apologia for President Obama’s bailout of GM and Chrysler.

This year, it’s Coca-Cola’s multi-lingual “America the Beautiful” ad.  It features “America the Beautiful” sung first in English, and then in a variety of foreign languages.  The tracks play over scenes of people of different ethnicities recreating while enjoying a Coke, often with some sort of Coke advertising in the background.

I saw the ad for the first time when it ran live, and I thought it was moving and beautiful.  I had no idea that it might be controversial until I saw a couple of Facebook postings by some friends decrying the translation of a patriotic song into other languages.  Others said that the ad was nothing more than a politically correct paean to the cult of multiculturalism.

I’ve seen different interpretations as well.  One friend thought it showed foreign tourists marveling at America’s beauty. Another said that non-English scenes weren’t even set in the United States.  They’re interesting, but they interpret away the core question of the ad’s appropriateness in light of multiculturalism.

There’s nothing wrong with the ad, if interpreted as most people saw it -- recent immigrants praising America in their own native languages.  Only in the context of today’s multi-culti cult is the ad problematic, so it’s the cult that’s the problem, not the ad.

We have a long history of new immigrants singing praise of their adopted homeland in their native tongues.  As late as 1943, the Educational Alliance was circulating a Yiddish translation of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to honor the 100th anniversary of the death of Francis Scott Key.  Earlier in the century, Jews wrote patriotic music in Yiddish: “Long Live America,” “Long Live the Land of the Free,”  and “Washington und Lincoln und Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses, our Teacher),” which must have involved a fair amount of cultural as well as linguistic translation.

All this happened while their kids were learning English and enlisting to fight in both World Wars.  Even before WWI, in 1910, we have, “It's tough when Izzy Rosenstein loves Genevieve Malone,” although actual intermarriage wouldn’t reach epidemic proportions for another 70 years.

New immigrants have always had questions about their loyalty -- but I think it’s fair to say that writing patriotic songs in their native tongues, and translating traditional American ones, isn’t the source of those suspicions.

What conservatives were reacting against are the sentiments in this Facebook posting from a friend of mine who’s a political science professor at a major Midwestern state university:

As the child and grandchild of immigrants, who worked to make a place for themselves in this country *and* who spent considerable resources on my education so that I would be able to fluently speak the language they spoke when they arrived here, I absolutely cannot figure out why this commercial or the idea of multiculturalism has so unhinged so many people. This desperate drive to make "America" or "Americans" into a single thing that matches one's own personal experience seems so futile, such a waste of time and energy.

It encapsulates pretty much everything that’s wrong with the cult of multi-culti and the way it’s been sold to several generations of Americans.  (By the way, this is also from a guy who has, as near as I can tell, made little-to-no genuine effort to understand the large swath of his own fellow Americans who love and care about guns, so I guess cultural relativism has its limits.)

Those who see assimilation as a sine qua non of a functioning society made up of immigrants don’t futilely want to make America (sans scare quotes) into “one single thing.”  They understand America as a broad umbrella that can contain a wide variety of differences.