Coke Ad Sparks Cries On Social Media To 'Speak English'

A Coca-Cola commercial attracted social media backlash following last Sunday's Super Bowl. It featured a multi-lingual version of "America The-Beautiful." A longer version of the commercial will air during NBC's Olympic opening ceremonies coverage. Our Code Switch Team looks at what that commercial and the conversation it triggered say about us, and what it tells us about advertisers.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

At some point during tonight's Opening Ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, NBC will run a much-talked about television ad for Coca-Cola.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: This will be an extended version of the commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. The TV ad features this familiar American song with seven young women singing in seven different languages: English, Spanish, Hindi, Tagalog, Hebrew, Senegalese, French, Keres Pueblo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Singing in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Singing in foreign language)

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

That commercial prompted a lot of shouting on social media, which you could boil down to two words: Speak English. Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke with Gene Demby, of NPR's Code Switch team, about the ad and how it has Americans talking.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: OK. So Coke's re-running the ad, Gene. Obviously, they weren't scared off by the controversy over this. What do you make of it all?

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: So this is kind of routine these days. Every time something happens in popular culture, in which a brown person does something kind of unexpected, there's this apoplexy on Twitter to which people respond.

INSKEEP: When you say brown person, of course, language you hear is a function of race or ethnicity as well. We're talking about people from different parts of the world, or whose ancestors were from different parts of the world.

DEMBY: That's right. So there was the NBA game last summer in which a Mexican-American boy sang the national anthem in a mariachi costume. There was Twitter backlash to that. There was Miss America, who was Indian-American - the first Indian-American Miss America. There was Twitter backlash for that. Of course, there was the Cheerios commercial in which a biracial child was talking to her white mother and her black father, and there was backlash to that.

And of course, there were stories about that backlash, and there was a backlash to the backlash that accompanies that as well. So the thing about Twitter, though, is that it magnifies voices. So it's often really hard to get a sense of the scope of public sentiment.

INSKEEP: And there's no reason to be surprised by this because America is changing. This is part of the discussion of how the country is changing, and what it stands for. So if it is predictable that when Coke puts out an ad like they did that they're going to get the kind of reaction that they have received, do advertisers actually account for that in their strategies with ads?

DEMBY: Well, it's really hard to overstate the viral value of an ad like this, and the backlash to an ad like this. We spoke to a creative director named Polly Beale, at Sensis, an advertising agency in California, and she sounded a little cynical.

POLLY BEALE: I mean, I think it's predictable. You know, haters are going to hate. I think most people don't really care. I think it's just part of American life, and most people understand that their kids and, you know, their neighbors and their friends are going to be different in terms of ethnicity but also, different in terms of personality types. And I think that's what we notice more.

INSKEEP: OK. So is Coca-Cola intentionally trying to provoke discussion so they get more bang for their ad buck?

DEMBY: So Coke released a statement saying that they were surprised by the reaction, but Beale said that inside an advertising agency, this is the way this conversation might play out among creatives.

BEALE: Creative people get a brief, and when that brief is created by a strategic planner who looks at insight and, you know, business objectives of a commercial - here's a pie chart. Here's the breakdown of ethnicities. Oh, how interesting; they all speak different languages. Or quite often, people have a second language, and let's exploit that to some extent. At the end of the day, this is a multibillion-dollar brand that sells sugary drinks to children.

INSKEEP: OK. So I watched this ad. It brings a tear to my eye. And now, we're talking about the demographic research behind it that guides the creatives - or creative people in the company. Should I then feel very cynical about the Coke ad?

DEMBY: Well, Beale says that the social message and the bottom line are not things that are mutually exclusive.

BEALE: At the end of the day, companies want to make money, and corporations want to make money. People want to do good. One would hope that there was a meeting of minds where doing good makes sense for the corporation, for the corporation wants to sell product and it wants to make money.

INSKEEP: So sure, they're manipulating us. But they may well, at the same time, as a company, and as executives and advertising executives, believe in the values they're expressing in the ad.

DEMBY: It's quite possible. I mean, Coke did submit a friend of the court brief in the big affirmative action case - Texas v. Fisher - last year on the side of maintaining affirmation action in higher education. They felt that it was important to create a new leadership for the company. So the company's been outspoken on issues of diversity before. So this is not exactly something that's foreign to them.

INSKEEP: (Singing) I'd like to teach the world to sing - come on, Gene, come on.

DEMBY: That's all you, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. (Singing) Perfect harmony. That's NPR's Gene Demby of our Code Switch team. Thanks for coming by.

DEMBY: Thanks so much, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF COKE JINGLE)

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