By Stephen Frost
Sunday night, during the Super Bowl, Coca-Cola aired an ad with the song “America the Beautiful” sung in numerous languages, featuring a diverse range of Americans, including a gay couple with their child, people of various races, income levels and ages.
Monday morning, the Internet exploded with negative tweets, comments and statements that were quite revealing.
The first thing the comments revealed is that an alarmingly high proportion of Americans do not know their national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the national anthem. “America the Beautiful” is just a beautiful song. People supposedly defending the “Englishness” of the national anthem were not even aware of which song the national anthem in fact is.
The second revelation for me was people saying they would never buy Coke products again. Really? So have they never bought from a Latino checkout worker at Wal-Mart whose first language is Spanish, or an Indian shop owner whose first language is Hindi? Are they aware of the diversity of the Coca-Cola workforce who make, supply and deliver their drink?
Another statement from the unhappy tweeters was that they would all switch to Pepsi. Ah, yes, that well-known homogenous brand with Indra Nooyi as its minority female CEO. Pepsi, famous for its Englishness.
In England, home of the English language, the closest equivalent example to the Super Bowl would be our recent Olympic Games. In the opening ceremony of London 2012, in the land of Shakespeare, we showcased the four national anthems of the four constituent parts of the U.K. The cricketers in the “English garden” were black, white and brown, whereas if we were being strictly historically accurate and rigid, they would have been all white, as they would have been in the 18th century. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid.
Our British national anthem was sung by a choir of children who are deaf or have disabilities, we featured a gay kiss, broadcast worldwide (that includes Nigeria and Saudi Arabia), as well as the suffragette movement and our immigration story.
Did this inclusion make the games worse? Public opinion suggests they were the most successful games ever, measured by a range of criteria including mass participation by diverse audiences and the fact that it was a sell-out. Diversity strengthened our patriotism, not weakened it. We all shared collective pride in our history, our evolution and in the show we were putting on for the world that night.
We can choose to view the world as terribly scary and a zero-sum game where for us to succeed the other party must necessarily lose. Or, instead, we could calmly think about enlarging the pie for everyone. Does allowing a song to be sung in another language really harm our country? Or does it in fact demonstrate the marvelous inclusiveness of a patriotism that seeks strength through new recruits? More really is more.
I understand many people are afraid of change and loss, but multilingual ads are neither. We have always been diverse; we are just less ignorant of it today than we used to be.
Too often, the public discourse around diversity is negative, from immigration restrictions to terrorists. If there is one thing London 2012 did for the benefit of all of us, it was to reflect the positivity of diversity and show the world what real inclusion looks like.
Personally, I thought the London 2012 opening ceremony, and the Coke Super Bowl ad, were each wonderful pictures of our respective diverse countries. The backlash is sad, real, and demonstrates that there is work still to do to make everyone feel included. Note to diversity supporters: Whatever you think of the backlash, these folks need to be included too.
I am British, from the home of the Domesday book, Magna Carta and Downton Abbey. I had the opportunity to spend two years in the beautiful United States, to pay taxes and visit the stunning landscapes showcased in the Coke ad. To make American friends (of all colors and languages).
I am now steeling myself for a negative reaction from some fellow English-speaking Americans who don’t want me to sing their national anthem in my accent either. So I won’t. I guess I’ll just sing a beautiful song instead.
P.S. — One place Coke won’t be showing this ad is Sochi. And if all the people who don’t like this ad would rather we adopted the Sochi approach, I think they would lose the Twitter war fairly quickly.
Stephen Frost is the author of “The Inclusion Imperative: How Real Inclusion Creates Better Business and Builds Better Societies.” He is former chief of staff and head of diversity and inclusion at the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.