As someone who doesn’t know the difference between a touchdown and first down, I didn’t feel the need to tune into the Super Bowl like the other estimated 111.5 million viewers plastered to their TVs, many of whom awaited the much-anticipated commercials more than the actual game. Instead, I decided to sit on the sidelines and follow the game on Twitter–all of the commentary, none of the time-outs and the ability to participate in all of the brouhaha with my very own fingertips. And from what I understood to be a pretty uneventful game, reading tweets about the Super Bowl without watching proved to be a comedy of sorts, somewhat like watching people dance without hearing the music.
Early into my foray into Twitter’s coverage of the big game, my timeline alerted me to something that piqued my interest—an ad for Coca-Cola that promoted the diversity of America with people from various ethnic and racial backgrounds singing “America the beautiful” in multiple languages. But, lo and behold, the ad featured Muslim American women, hijab and all, enjoying a good ol’ Coke. Later, Twitter also informed me that some of these women are Palestinian American, also corroborated by the “behind the scenes” version of the ad released by Coca-Cola.
Xenophobes and Islamophobes alike seethed with a carbonated-fueled rage over the ad that depicted Americans, some of whom Twitter ranters described as “terrorists,” singing “America the Beautiful.” The haters, which have not seemed to fizzle out, urged a boycott of the carbonated beverage they felt threatened our heritage as an “American”-speaking nation, particularly singling out the Palestinians featured in the ad:
— Kevin Atkins (@MrAtkinss) February 3, 2014
Almost instantly my Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with Muslim Americans singing the praises of Coca-Cola for being inclusive of us, for including us in an ad that would receive such wide exposure, for portraying Muslim women as happy, smiling, free-spirited individuals instead of our usual cloaked, submissive, demoralized, subjugated selves. I know, quite a stretch.
I felt a bit disappointed in the naiveté of some. Yes, the gesture of inclusion appears laudable on the surface. But people can fail to realize that Coca-Cola is a massive multinational corporation, one of the most recognizable brands on the planet, and it did not gain such footing by playing nice and worrying about the feelings of various communities. A friend also reminded me of the ad Coca-Cola ran during last year’s Super Bowl, widely criticized by Arab American groups for playing upon racist stereotypes of Middle Easterners, as the ad depicted an Arab walking through the desert with a camel as he watched cowboys and showgirls, among others, race by him to reach a huge bottle of Coke.
No doubt Coca-Cola was closely following the controversy surrounding ScarJo, Oxfam and SodaStream.
I had already been following the online campaign against SodaStream’s advertisement to air during the game. The company, according to the US Campaign to End the Occupation, maintains its main production site on illegal West Bank settlement. By manufacturing products in an Israeli settlement, it usurps Palestinian land and abuses Palestinian resources and labor.
The protest against the SodaStream ad gained increased media coverage and brought the discussion of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement (BDS) to the forefront of American discourse following the brand’s new spokeswoman’s, Scarlett Johansson, resignation from her position as an Oxfam ambassador, an antipoverty group that opposes trade with Israeli settlements. Instead, she decided to proceed with her endorsement deal with SodaStream, essentially choosing personal profit over human rights.
The SodaStream commercial had been ironically edited from the original version, where Johansson said, ”Sorry, Coke and Pepsi” to “I just love helping people.”
Was the company’s decision to feature Muslim Americans, specifically Palestinian Americans, a subtle attempt at giving SodaStream the proverbial middle finger? Or was it simply taking advantage of the marketing controversy? Probably a little of both.
Needless to say, Coca-Cola is a corporation and corporations are not our friends or next-door neighbors. They don’t try to woo us with positive imagery of ourselves because they love us or our communities; they do so to get us to purchase a product. Although the ad was created to run during the Super Bowl, an American event, due to the magic of YouTube, the company likely expected the ad and the extended version to go viral worldwide. Images of smiling women in hijab drinking Coke will get the attention of Muslims all over the world, whether they speak English or not. And for a company with a less than stellar reputation in the Muslim world, this could definitely help their bottom line. Positive exposure in the Muslim world will likely translate into greater profits—enough to risk the backlash from the backwaters of racist America.
I’m not advocating for or against Coca-Cola, but I do hope that people will look at such portrayals of diversity with a critical eye. Don’t assume Coke is warm and fuzzy because of a commercial; they’ve done enough harm in the world that a marketing opportunity isn’t enough to drive me to cheerlead in their corner. Many other attempts at inclusion are more deserving of our accolades– authors who integrate Muslim characters into children’s books or schools that make a point of teaching units on Islamic holidays or historical figures. Be wary of corporations sweet-talking you into an ice-cold, sugary beverage.