Coke Super Bowl commercial featured a Palestinian but don’t fall for the sugary sweetness

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:

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.

Cha-ching!

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.

About Deanna Othman

Deanna Othman is a Palestinian American from Chicago, IL. She currently works as the assistant editor of Islamic Horizons magazine and serves on the editorial board of the Chicago Crescent. Deanna is also a member of the Chicago Executive Committee for the American Muslims for Palestine. Follow her on Twitter at @deannaothman.
Posted in Media, US Politics

{ 24 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. W.Jones says:

    Coke has paramilitaries in Latin America, so I agree they are not cuddly.

    On the other hand I think the inclusion of Middle Easterners both times- this time and last time with the camel were positive, because they were not negative images, even if they went along with Stereotypes. I also tend to think that this had to do with Sodastream competing with Coke, but it’s just a guess.

    To give an example, I think Lawrence of Arabia was a positive film about Middle Easterners, even though it was Orientalist. Even if it included stereotypes, it still used them in a positive way. (This is not to deny the validity of such criticisms).

    I would however be more skeptical if an Israeli or pro-nationalist writer used stereotypes, even if their work was overall positive.

    This is because Coke’s main goal in the ad is selling coke, while the liberal nationalist writer has a specific goal about the political system, and if they turn stereotypes in a negative way, then it is problematic and reflects on their ideology.

  2. American says:

    ”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”

    I doubt there are many people on earth that dont know that Coke is a multinational corp and behaves like all corps.
    However if you want to make Coke more adv friendly to Arabs, round up your Palestine group and go to Coke’s corp site and then to their ‘investor relations” section and tell them how you are so impressed with their realistic treatment of Arabs that you’re going to be buying Coke stock and featuring Coke exclusively at your events.
    Then go to Pepsi ‘s corp site and tell them your group really prefers Pepsi to Coke but they need to do more to appeal to Muslims and Arabs ‘like Coke does’. LOL

  3. 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.

    i’m not sure how far in advance people plan these commercials but given what you wrote earlier about 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 i bet the soda stream ad didn’t play into their decision to feature Muslim Americans. but the specific reference to palestinian americans in the ‘behind the scenes’ clip could have been added in later at short notice.

    • Krauss says:

      Yeah those were my thoughts too.

      I mean I wish that Coca-Cola paid as much attention to the Sodastream controversy as Deanna wishes it did, but I doubt it. These commercials take months and considering the backlash they received from people like Deanna last year, they wanted to mitigate that this time.

      • ritzl says:

        Agree. Compounded by Coke’s sensitivity to/in Arab/Muslim/global markets.

        At the risk of restating the obvious, Deanna and efforts like hers have power that we’re all just beginning to see and feel. Cool.

  4. Krauss says:

    Although I’m sure you could find anti-Arab/muslim people on Twitter, I think Deanna’s scope here is a bit narrow, probably a reflection on her own narrow concerns in this world. The main backlash was never about muslims. The main backlash was about language.

    This backlash took strange forms. “Speak American” was the rallying cry, despite that there is no such thing as “American” language. There’s English. And as many pointed out, if you really wanted to speak “American”, cherokee is a good place to start.

    But further than that, this kind of criticism is quite anachronistic from an American historical standpoint. There was in many ways a lot more linguistic diversity in terms of overall impact 130 years ago or so, during the late 1800s.

    There’s a lot of Hispanic speakers today in America, but overall, you’re seeing ethnic languages die a lot faster than they used to. Ask how many 2nd generation Chinese-American kids have a high proficiency of their parent’s mother tongue. (hint: not many). The same is true for Indian-Americans kids etc.

    That wasn’t always the case. The white elites in the late 1800s created a lot of propaganda against other groups(read: non-whites) such as “Yellow Peril” etc in order to create a white cohesive identity. There was a lot of resentment, particularly between the Anglos and the Irish & Italians and to a lesser extent the Jews. It was like Northern Ireland back when it was pretty bad, people wouldn’t even go to other folks’ neighbourhoods.

    And part of that divide was linguistic. Today, you really only have Spanish that survives in some shape or form into the 2nd generation in a meaningful way and has the numbers to count. But among the 2nd generation, English still dominates by far so I don’t really know what these “critics” are hysterical about?

    And anyway, if you don’t learn English well, you’ll suffer a lot in America, especially from an economical standpoint as it is the language of academia, business and the work force at large. So why would they care? It’s not like the people who don’t learn proper English somehow gain an advantage.

    Then again, why am I trying to understand an irrational critique from a rational perspective?

  5. Henry Norr says:

    Only a bit off-topic: Coke yesterday bought a 10-percent stake in Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, not because they want to be in the coffee biz, but because Green Mountain owns the Keurig brand (single-serve home coffee makers) and is developing a model called Keurig Cold, which will make among other things sodas. The deal give Coke an inside track to sell its flavors for the Keurig Cold, thought the deal is non-exclusive.

    The Keurig Cold won’t be out until the fall or next year, but it looks to be a major threat to SodaStream’s business. Yet SodaStream shares soared this morning currently they’re up 8.47 percent for the day. How to explain the seeming paradox? Analysts are speculating that Coke’s move will push Pepsi, which last year considered buying SS, to do so now, lest they get iced out of the Keurig Cold.

    If that happens, Pepsi will make an interesting target. I bet they’ll shut down the Mishor Adumim plant, though probably not immediately.

    • ritzl says:

      @HN- Great comment. Very interesting. I think you’re right about where this is heading. Thanks.

      Beside the rights issue of a factory in a settlement, SodaStream had a terrible biz strategy, imo. They aimed to supplant BIG Soda with their own proprietary flavors. It was NEVER going to happen. Analysts and consumers saw that hence the reduced profitability, initial negative press, and stock drop. SS tried to paper over that deeply flawed strategy with celebrity. That only added to the sense that the company was fundamentally poorly conceived and managed. BDS probably pushed SS over the edge.

      SS could have licensed known, small-brand flavors and adopted Coke’s apparent Keurig-like strategy. It might have worked. They didn’t and now they are an acquisition target for Pepsi who, as you point out, will almost certainly buy them as an existing, competitive “in” to a viable strategy. Hence the stock rise.

      To me, again rights aside, the takeaway on SS’s biz arc is the destructiveness of the blinkered, balls-to-the-wall managerial hubris of SS/Birnbaum. It’s both a textbook entrepreneurial biz mistake and an illustration of the Israeli mindset writ large.

      The hell-or-high-water pursuit of a fundamentally flawed strategy inevitably leads to failure. As seafoid says so often, there are simply other larger forces in play that have to be taken into account. You can’t just wish it to be (and/or throw money at it).

      Sorry to continue OT.

      • ritzl says:

        Afterthought. If Pepsi does buy SS, I hope they move the MA settlement factory lock, stock, and barrel to Nablus or Jenin.

        Plenty of aid money floating around to subsidize that effort, and it would send their brand awareness and fair-trade cred through the roof, with 1/3 of the people on the planet (or more!!).

      • Henry Norr says:

        >>SS could have licensed known, small-brand flavors

        Not to defend SS (G-d forbid!), but isn’t that exactly what they did? Their roster of licensed flavors includes Kool-Aid, Country Time, Crystal Light, and Ocean Spray, among others.

        What they haven’t done is a deal for any of the well known bottled soda brands, most of which are owned by Coke and Pepsi. For all I know they might have tried – I imagine Coke and Pepsi would be pretty hesitant to undermine the huge profits they make by selling bottles of sugar water with a few drops of artificial flavoring and coloring at ridiculous prices. What probably attracted PepsiCo to Green Mountain is that Keurig’s single-serve (“K-Cup”) model holds out the promise of profits almost as enormous as what they make off the bottled drinks – or maybe even larger.

  6. Kathleen says:

    Yes that part of the commercial jumped out a me. Loved the inclusion. Do not drink Coke and will not be drinking Coke. Sorry to hear about all of the racist tweets.

  7. mcohen says:

    i love this one about subliminal messages……………..”We tapped into the psyche”…………….anyway who profits,certainly not “american palestinians” and you guys think sodastream is bad because,because,because……..whatever……..read the link below,the last paragraph is quite interesting

    “In fact, the unrest in Egypt has actually led to a positive outcome for Coca-Cola’s business in the country. The situation served as a catalyst for activating new marketing campaigns.

    “We tapped into the psyche of our Egyptian consumers”, explained Mr. Bolden. The company used the notion of “building a future together” by making an effort to portray itself as improving Egypt as a whole. The outcome of the unrest has created an opportunity for Coca-Cola to engage in what Mr. Bolden calls “cultural leadership”.

    link to yourmiddleeast.com

  8. kma says:

    if you want a lifetime without cavities or diabetes or other health problems, don’t drink soda every day, and why would anyone want that in their home ???
    might as well smoke cigarettes.

    • Citizen says:

      I dropped the Coke, but I still smoke. The Coke add protests IMO were mostly based on the notion that it equated all those other languages with English, weakening the power of English to unify the American culture, nation, speaking mostly to the concern that Spanish will usurp English one day as America’s prime language, diluting “United We Stand” in multi culti land.

      The Palestinian American woman Coco Cola picked as part of the many faces of our contemporary nation of immigrants is certainly attractive.

      There’s a spoof on the Coke ad: link to nydailynews.com

  9. Citizen says:

    Wonder who picked the languages additional to English? Spanish, Tagalog, Mandarin, Hindi, Hebrew, Keres, Senegalese-French, Arabic?

  10. lysias says:

    Coca Cola serves as a symbol for all of American capitalism in Billy Wilder’s Cold War comedy One Two Three.

  11. eljay says:

    I think the multiculturalism portrayed in the commercial is beautiful. Leave it to hateful f*cking morons to criticize it for not being “American” enough or “white” enough.