Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Why #AmericaIsn'tBeautiful

Coca-Cola have caused a stir with their Superbowl advert – a video showing a variety of people from various ethnic groups going about their lives to the soundtrack of ‘America the Beautiful’, sung in a variety of languages. It’s simple, kitsch, and optimistic. However, despite its hip DIY aesthetic and instagram-filter charm, it has proved controversial. Conservatives have been outraged at this display of liberal diversity, particularly the singing of the national anthem in languages other than English.

On the face of it, I’m sure that we can all applaud the apparent message – despite its saccharine delivery, the vision of society immediately presented seems to be a good one. I particularly appreciate their inclusion of Arabic as one of the languages featured – a deliberately provocative move that challenges standard post-9/11 ‘us and them’ narratives that has wound up the American Right wonderfully.

But this is where the irony lies. On closer inspection, the message of the advert is a fundamentally conservative one. If this advert could vote, it would vote Republican.

The vision of society it presents is one of unity of a number of disparate groups of people – disparate because they are never shown side by side. This unity is comprised of two things: firstly, the anthem – a common song sung in a plurality of languages. This speaks to the idea that the nation itself unites in difference its constituent groups. However, we must also note the omnipresence of Coke. Throughout the video, we are shown subtle reminders of the product - Children play football in front of a wall bedecked with the logo, a family settles down to a meal and a nice glass of coke, a group of friends dance while a Coca-Cola coolbox lurks in the background. Thus the second unifying factor of Coke’s multicultural society is the enjoyment of the product itself. The utopian unity we see is the unity of consumers, participating in the market together in a way that transcends all cultural boundaries.

There are a number of problematic aspects to this vision. The first of these lies in the way capitalism deals with difference. A common post-Liberal critique runs thus: the market is not actually a neutral space in which multiple societies can operate. Its fundamental narrative is one that reduces value to the nominal monetary values ascribed by trade. As such, there is no space for the competing systems of absolute value which actually define cultural difference – it is only by denying these absolutes that the market can function. Thus it denies authentic difference.

This gives a different spin to the vision in the advert. Although we see all these different groups of people, they are really a homogenous group of consumers. Indeed, aside from the archetypal cultural markers (hijabs, kippahs, hip-hop), there is really very little of the people in the adverts presented at all – they are skin-deep representations of cultural groups, and it is precisely the depth so effectively obscured by the advert in which the authentic difference denied by the market lies. The advert is thus fundamentally dishonest – the supposed attempt to present the liberal utopian vision of diversity is really a front for total cultural homogenisation.

We are then called to ask what this communicates about American society as a whole – which leads to the second implication. The vision presented in the advert is an ideal version of America (i.e. without the vast disparities in wealth, literacy and crime along race lines that currently define US cosmopolitanism). But now that we are aware of the true structure of society presented, we can see that it actually communicates a strongly imperialist message: come to America (so long as you are prepared to submit to the market)! Enjoy liberty to be yourself (so long as that self is a consumer)! We are all one (in our mutual consumption of Coca-Cola)! In short, what is presented is an America in which Western liberal (non)values rule supreme, and all other systems of value are erased.

The final reason to dislike this advert lies in the way that the advert appropriates the identity of America itself: Throughout the advert, we are exposed to archetypal ‘American’ images such as cowboys, mountains and deserts. The ending features the slogan “#AmericaIsBeautiful”. The entire thing is underpinned by one of the great patriotic songs of American nationalism. This juxtaposes the Coke brand and the American identity. Furthermore, as we have seen, the unity that comes from being a member of the US as a country is underpinned by the unity of common enjoyment of Coca-Cola. This is not, therefore, America in itself that we are seeing – we are seeing the Coke vision of America. National identity is thus entirely mediated through the Coke brand. It is transformed from a political identity to a commodity – a collection of qualities tied by association to a product. Drinking Coke and being American thus not only becomes synonymous, but the distinction between the two collapses entirely: when you are a member of this glorious vision of the US, you are part of the Coke brand – a loyal consumer, sipping the sugary nectar of the Coke ideology.

The US is founded on a narrative of revolution in pursuit of universal principles – Liberty and Justice. Coke subordinates this to their brand identity, which both trivialises it, and ultimately resists the narrative itself. Who needs to pursue this ideal America? It is here already, presented for your passive consumption on the large screen, and in your cup. The fundamentally radical American identity is thus transformed into one of passivity.

This commodification of social and political identities is nothing new to Coca-Cola. The recent “Share a Coke with X” campaign run in Britain similarly attempted to mediate non-market social relations – ‘meeting up with a friend’ became ‘meeting up with a friend over a nice bottle of Coke’. The principled conservative may find something worthwhile to be outrage about here - if there is anything which undermines the traditional values of family, patriotism and social responsibility, then this attempt to commodify natural human relationships is it.

It is thus right that this advert should be controversial. However, it is the Left who should be up in arms. It is a Trojan horse – concealed within its fluffy multicultural shell are the remorseless forces of conservative neoliberalism. Our passive consumption of this sort of thing merely serves to dissolve the core values that underpin authentic social visions, like teeth in acid.

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