Opinion

America is Beautiful probably hurts more than it helps

Controversial ad doesn’t live up to its predecessors

In the past, Coca Cola found success tapping into the zeitgeist of  American Culture and then offering itself as a solution to the fundamental issues of the day. When done successfully,  Coca Cola has managed to transcend the fizzy drinks category and become a real cultural icon—a rallying point around which all Americans could gather. This past Superbowl, Coca Cola once again dipped its toes into the arena of cultural relevance by introducing their controversial America is Beautiful campaign.

The goal seems to be to capture some of the magic of those iconic advertisements of the past. In this article, we’ll look at what made those ads great and then see how America is Beautiful measures up.

Hilltop

Coca Cola has been, for the better part of a century, a symbol of the American Dream. Pictures of happy teens and families guzzling Cokes at the movies, beach, or picnic have always formed the cornerstone of Coca Cola’s image as the one truly American drink of choice. That changed somewhat in 1971. As the 60s drew to a close, America was in the throws of cultural upheaval. With the civil rights movement winding down,  and protest against the Vietnam war gearing up, people found themselves increasingly divided and polarized on a number of issues.

Against this backdrop, Coca Cola launched Hilltop, a commercial in which a diverse collection of young people stand on a hillside offering to “buy the world a coke” and teach it to “sing in perfect harmony”. The advertisement crystalized and addressed the fundamental issues facing the nation at the moment and re-imagined the American dream -and Coca Cola’s role it it—in a way that was relevant to a whole generation of young people.

When Hilltop first aired, Coca Cola received over a hundred thousand letters about it. People called radio stations, asking them to play the Coca Cola advertising so that they could hear the song. Today the advert is consistently ranked among the best in the world among advertising professionals and the song, “I’d like to teach the world to sing” still sells as sheet music over 40 years after its release. The fact that, just last year, the latest iteration of the advertisement—in which customers buy strangers across the globe a coke using specially designed vending machines—won a CLIO award, shows the lasting impact and effectiveness of this message.

Hey Kid, catch!

Coca Cola struck gold again a decade later using the same formula. 1979 represented the darkest hours before Reagan’s imagined ‘Morning in America’. The economic depression that followed the civil rights movement, the war on drugs, and the Ghettoization of America’s cities had left the country clearly divided on racial lines. Popular culture fed this White America under Siege mentality. Countless TV shows and movies featured white cops, vigilantes, and mercenaries facing off against hordes of drug dealers, muggers, and rapists—usually of Latin American or African American descent .

The news often played up sensational accounts of white suburban families who wandered into the wrong urban neighborhood and suffered horrible fates. In my own experience, I remember my grandmother’s stern warning when we went to visit her in her Miami retirement home -“Don’t get lost. Nowadays you take a wrong turn and they kill you.” There was little doubt at the time of who ‘they’ were. It was everyone that didn’t look like us.

Against this backdrop, Coca Cola launched the “Mean” Joe Green commercial, also known as Hey Kid, Catch. That was the first advertisement of a national brand featuring a black male, Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Mean” Joe Green was at the time the most dominant defensive player in American Football, whose reputation for unbridled ferocity and violence in an already violent game is borne out in the nickname given him by fellow players and the media. In the commercial, “Mean” Joe limps down a darkened stadium tunnel, tired and injured. A small white boy, obviously awestruck, timidly offers his Coca Cola. “Mean” Joe is reluctant at first, prickly even, but when the drink is offered, he guzzles the whole thing and, with an unexpectedly warm smile, offers up his game jersey to the boy in return. Thus the racial divide is crossed, a bond is formed, and the world is healed a little bit over a refreshing Coca Cola.

Hey kid, Catch won a slew of awards and, like Hilltop, consistently ranks among the top advertisements of all time. Joe Greene credits it with expanding his appeal and keeping him relevant and in the public eye for over 35 years. The only victim in the advertisement, it seems, was his reputation for meanness. Before the commercial, opposing fans would display crude effigies of Mean Joe with unflattering captions. After the commercial aired, children would surround him after games offering up cans of Coca Cola.

Since the airing of these two award-winning advertisements, Coca Cola has largely stayed out of the cultural conversation, focusing instead on lighter, more emotional branding campaigns, such as its recent Open Happiness. Coca Cola does occasionally pay tribute to these classic ads, usually on anniversaries. However these tributes and references focus primarily on nostalgia for the ads themselves rather than trying to add substance to the conversations that spawned them.

America is Beautiful

In 2014, America is once again deeply divided. Today the debate is over what it means to be American. What defines America and American values? A language, religion, and way of life? Or an ideal and a sense of belonging which is not dependent on shared behavior or background? We’ve seen the flashpoints of this divide in the debates over immigration, gay marriage, and increasingly polarized and dysfunctional government.

Coca Cola’s entrance to the fray was a commercial, America is Beautiful, which premiered during the 2014 Superbowl and features Americans of diverse ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles (a gay family is shown as one of the vignettes) enjoying Coca Cola while the song America the Beautiful is sung in various, decidedly non-English languages, including Spanish, Hebrew, Hindi, and Arabic.

Reaction to the ad was swift and has followed a well-worn script. Online, outrage and kneejerk reactions led to #boycottcoke becoming a global trending topic. Immediately thereafter, conservative pundits and politicians weighed in -feeding on the rage of their most incensed constituents. Debate then swung back in the other direction as progressives rushed to defend the campaign. A slew of articles and stories in the mainstream media have condemned the bigotry, and using it as proof once again that America still has a long way to go on the issues of diversity and tolerance.

So What?

At first glance, it seems that Coca Cola is following the formula that brought it such singular success in the past. Find a divisive issue, take a stand, and show how Coca Cola has a role in healing the rifts that divide our culture. However, unlike Hilltop and Hey kid, catch!, which held a mirror up to our problems as a country and then offered Coke up as a solution to those problems, America is Beautiful doesn’t actually offer a solution to the problems it highlights.

Coca Cola had the opportunity to inject themselves and their products into the narrative by creating an inclusive message and a role for themselves -even symbolically—by ‘buying the world a coke’ or offering a coke as a bond between people of differing viewpoints. This is how those previous commercials brought us together as a culture around our most iconic national brand. However in America is Beautiful, Coca Cola has no role to play in the advertisements other than window dressing in a series of unconnected vignettes.

Without the product having a central role, as it did in Hilltop and Hey Kid, Catch, America is Beautiful’s value as an advertisement is reduced to simply pandering to the various lifestyles represented in the advert. Hispanics, Jews, Arabs, Caucasians, African Americans, Gays, are all shown in their isolated worlds, each drinking Coke with little incentive to connect or bond. Essentially, Coca Cola has achieved a PR coup along with six or seven mini-ads targeting different demographics.

Further, and even more ominously, Coca Cola has taken a position which was pretty much guaranteed to cause outrage amongst a certain, vocal group of conservatives. In a different political climate, America the Beautiful might be seen as a beautiful tribute to multiculturalism. However, in today’s charged and polarized atmosphere, America is Beautiful actually divides us further by providing yet another flashpoint for those for and against these ideas to re-hash their same arguments.

Is it outlandish to suppose that this was a conscious, opportunistic decision on the part of Coca Cola? Did they launch the advert in hopes of stirring up a hornet’s nest and then basking in the glow of ‘meme of the moment’—stealing the spotlight from other Super Bowl advertisers for a few weeks? It’s not for us to say since we weren’t in the room the day the decision was made. However, it certainly has worked out that way. We have yet to see how the America is Beautiful campaign will develop over the coming months. It is possible that, in the form of an integrated campaign over time, Coca Cola will step forward and become a rallying point for all Americans. But as it stands at the time of this writing, Coca Cola has not created a new advertising masterpiece in the vein of Hilltop or Hey Kid, Catch.

Coca Cola is arguably the most American of American icons. In the past, the brand has used its universal appeal to heal us and bring us together as a single people. The shame of America is Beautiful is that, in this case, Coca Cola took the short-term, opportunistic route instead of the more difficult route exemplified by its previous commercials. America is Beautiful doesn’t do anything. Rather it just points out how wounded we really are as a nation —and then conveniently opts out of any obligation to help heal that wound.

About the Author

Douglas Kaufman is the Head of Communications at Cocoon Group, which is an award-winning international agency offering a full selection of branding services.

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