Coca-Cola's Super Bowl Controversy Shows the Risks of Going Total Market

The 'America the Beautiful' Chorus, Perfectly Executed, Still Stirred a Backlash

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What possibly could be construed as offensive about "America the Beautiful" sung by a chorus of Americans? When they are singing in a language other than English. That was Coke's Super Bowl ad -- "American the Beautiful" sung in seven languages -- and it has stirred serious anger among conservative pundits and viewers, generating reactions including the hashtag #BoycottCoke, which trended on Twitter immediately after the game.

Here's the ad again:

And here's a sample of critical comments posted with the ad on YouTube:

"Our forefathers are rolling over in their graves."

"'God Bless America' [sic] is an American song. Can't we celebrate our own core cultural heritage and sing the damn song in English? After all, it's only our national language."

"For all of those who fought and died for our freedom, I am sorry for this commercial and for the immigrants who came to the country and learned the language."


"If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing 'America the Beautiful' in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl, by a company as American as they come," former Florida Representative Allen West wrote on his website, "doggone we are on the road to perdition."

The conservative icon Glenn Beck agreed: "You need that to divide us politically? Cuz that's all this ad is ... It's an in-your-face ... and if you don't like it, if you're offended by it, then you're a racist. If you do like it, well then you're for immigration. That's all this is, is to divide people."

Commentary was equally impassioned on the other side. With the issue of immigration moving to center stage this year, Coca-Cola took a big chance.

Did it pay off? It's too early to say. The spot ranked a modest 17th on USA Today's Super Bowl Ad Meter, scoring a mere 6.06, likely reflecting its polarizing effects. The winner, Budweiser's "Puppy Love," got 8.29.

On the other hand, the PR from the controversy could be worth its weight in gold.

Keep in mind that the Pew Research Center reports that only 57% of Americans feel that "newcomers strengthen society." The number goes up to 69% when looking at millennials and down to the low 40s for boomers and the silent generation. Millennials voted for Barack Obama by a ratio of two to one in 2008, and Pew data show they are significantly more liberal than other generations on social issues. Jennifer Hochschild, Vesla Weaver and Traci Burch demonstrate in their book "Creating a New Racial Order," that the opinions of black and white millennials are converging, while moving away from the polarized views of their boomer parents. It's hard to say which of these generations will control the field in the Coke fallout, though I suspect it will be the millennials.

The company, for its part, has been upfront about its views. "Marketing 101 means total market." said Lauventria Robinson, Coca-Cola's VP-multicultural marketing for North America, at last year's ANA Multicultural Marketing and Diversity Conference. Accordingly, her company took a bold step last Sunday into total-marketing territory.

An effective total-market strategy is difficult to pull off. Research shows that when it comes to perceptions of racial progress, for example, blacks and whites are on a completely different page. In a 2009 study by sociologists at four leading universities, 61% of whites felt that blacks have already achieved equality, but only 17% of blacks agreed. Nearly half of blacks felt that African Americans have not achieved equality now, nor would they achieve it within their lifetime; only 17% of whites felt that way.

Perhaps worse, total marketing can fall prey to the alluring view of colorblindness. The singers presented in Coca-Cola's chorus represent groups in American society that still differ greatly in terms of education, health care, housing, income and incarceration rates. As attractive as a post-racial narrative may be, we are hardly there as a nation.

The definition of total marketing is also still a bit fuzzy. Varied interpretations agree, at least, on the necessity to take a positive stand on diversity. Lead with multicultural insights. Look for that one gem of a message with the power to unite consumers, while at the same time acknowledging their uniqueness. In this, Coke's execution was brilliant.

Coke nailed it, in a beautiful expression of the motto "E Pluribus Unum" -- "out of many, one." The company is no doubt established enough in both the advertising world and in consumers' thirst-quenching habits to weather any storm that follows.

But the total market strategy is tricky, and the challenge extends well beyond a single commercial. Coca-Cola included a same-sex couple in the ad -- a Super Bowl first. At the same time, it is under fire from gay activists, who are calling for a Coke boycott, because of the company's decision to sponsor the Sochi Winter Olympics, despite Russian gay abuses. When viewed in totality, it remains to be seen how well Coke will fare in navigating the sometimes difficult waters of total marketing.

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