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Coca-Cola Super Bowl Ad Stirs Up a Melting Pot of Controversy

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Being able to bring people together to enjoy its cool, refreshing soda has been a hallmark of Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) advertising since the groundbreaking "Hilltop" ad back in 1971 that featured dozens of multicultural teens singing they'd "like to teach the world to sing." 

So the beverage giant probably figured its "It's Beautiful" ad that premiered during yesterday's Super Bowl would also be a uniting force. Again displaying a diverse cast, the ad has the song "America, the Beautiful" being sung in English before suddenly switching to an ever-changing roster of seven additional languages as the images show the huge melting pot of U.S. culture. 

Coke said it plans to debut a 90-second version of the ad during the 2014 Winter Games, which begin Friday in Sochi, Russia. "For 127 years, Coca-Cola has been proud to be a part of bringing friends and families together while memories are made. With 'It's Beautiful,' we are simply showing that America is beautiful, and Coke is for everyone," Katie Bayne, Coke's North America brands president, said in a press release.

Yet rather than the ad being seen in an inclusive light, a firestorm of criticism erupted on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets questioning the wisdom of depicting such a decidedly American song in languages other than English. 

Some companies purposely wear their agenda on their sleeve, such as last year when General Mills ran a Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial family that generated similar levels of backlash (they made a return appearance during the Super Bowl, apparently without triggering the same animosity). The head of the Duck Dynasty clan also created a dust-up when he gave his opinion of homosexuality while Chick-fil-A's CEO got his company embroiled in controversy when he defended traditional marriage. It's probably worth noting the Coke ad also showed two dads roller-skating with their daughter, presumably the first Super Bowl depiction of an openly gay family.

Companies do run a risk of damaging their brands by campaigning for an issue that is unrelated to their product. With the cost of a Super Bowl ad having soared to $4 million this year, it's a risky move to use the time to champion a cause, and shareholders would be right to question the expenditure if it was being used for purposes other than advancing sales. 

Coke is generally recognized as one of the world's most valuable brands, and until falling to third place last year behind Apple and Google, it held the top spot for 13 straight years on Interbrand's list of 100 best global brands. The brand management firm estimates Coca-Cola is worth over $79.2 billion, which takes into account the brand's financial performance, the role it plays in influencing consumer choice, and its ability to command a premium price. Obviously such metrics would be threatened if the calls to boycott Coke that arose following the ad's run were carried out.

It's already facing an environment that's witnessing a domestic decline in diet carbonated soft drinks. Some 60% of Coke's revenues are tied to CSDs, much more than PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP), which, because of its Frito-Lay snack division, only generates a quarter of its sales from CSDs, though less than DrPepper Snapple Group (NYSE: DSP) at 70%.

Still all three companies have suffered drops in sales volumes, averaging declines in the mid- to high-single digits and the beverage makers have been scrambling to reverse the trend. While seen largely as a result of the artificial flavors the soda jerks have added to the beverages, Coke, which saw its volumes fall 6.8%, hardly needs consumers finding another reason to swear off Diet Coke.

I noted last month that one research firm thinks virtually all the Super Bowl spots aren't worth the money advertisers pay because 80% of the ads featured fail to get the audience to take action, buy a product, or try a service. In fact, the more advertisers pay, the less effective their ads become. That would apply for companies such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, which arguably had the most popular ad with its "Puppy Love" Budweiser spot, which was all feel-good schmaltz and had little to do with beer -- other than featuring the company's signature Clydesdale horses.

While I found Coca-Cola's Super Bowl ad jarring, I didn't see it as offensive. Certainly large segments of the population think the U.S. should be an English-only country, and particularly the advertising in a distinctly American venue such as the football classic, while others see the multiculturalism as a natural outgrowth of a diverse population. How about you? Did the Coca-Cola commercial leave you cold or did you see it as a sign of the inclusiveness of the country? Let me know in the comments section below!

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Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 7:58 PM, spendley wrote:

    It was a great ad, and I cannot believe there is any controversy at all. It represents who we SAY we are. E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one.

    I think the righteous indignation and campaign to boycott Coke may have backfired though. There is quite a bit of backlash today against the criticism and support for the ad.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 8:49 PM, horticultor wrote:

    I'll be boycotting KO products from now on. There are some songs I wouldn't mind hearing sung to other languages. In fact, I am bilingual myself - Spanish & English.

    America the Beautiful isn't one of them.

    Besides, we have SodaStream and no longer need KO products anyway.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 9:18 PM, spendley wrote:

    I wish people could get over the language thing. Unless Native American, we come from all over. Our (great) grandparents spoke other languages too. The next generations learned English as well.

    Think of the ad as a way of using a common song about "America" to unite everyone -- no matter the language. No one "owns" the song; it belongs to everyone.

    I think KO will be fine. Even if there is a dip in sales because of reactionaries, people will forget and go back to their old habits, and Coca Cola may even pick up a few customers to spite the nay sayers. Much ado about nothing.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 11:03 PM, Tsinky wrote:

    The Coca-Cola ad shows America as it is - and, in fact, always has been. It was nice to see a mega-corporation make such a bold, positive statement instead of playing it safe. I'm not a regular Coke drinker, and I'm not likely to become one, but when I'm eating out, I will give them another look.

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 6:58 AM, abbie116 wrote:

    E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one. ONE?? one what? One Nation but there has to be one common official language, ENGLISH. What are these corporations going to try and push next, the pledge of allegiance in 9 different languages? If we're not careful we'll end up with another Tower of Babel. Focus on your soda pop Coke and Cherrios, don't try and coach me on a new American way things are in your mind!

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 12:28 PM, KayakerRW wrote:

    Our American Super Bowl featured the Denver Broncos, named for a type of horse from the Spanish word for “rough” against the Seattle Seahawks, representing a city named for the chief of the non-English peoples who were displaced by the Americans who settled there. The winner received the Lombardi trophy.

    So how dare Coca-Cola corrupt our American game with an ad featuring words from any language other than English?

    Note to the humor impaired who Don’t Enjoy Nuanced Satire Enough, I actually liked the commercial.

    Seriously, I think translating words that express our highest aspirations into languages other than English is a great way to promote those aspirations everywhere.

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 12:28 PM, spendley wrote:

    Abbie116, One what? How about one Constitution?

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Rich Duprey

Rich has been a Fool since 1998 and writing for the site since 2004. After 20 years of patrolling the mean streets of suburbia, he hung up his badge and gun to take up a pen full time.

Having made the streets safe for Truth, Justice and Krispy Kreme donuts, he now patrols the markets looking for companies he can lock up as long-term holdings in a portfolio. So follow me on Facebook and Twitter for the most important industry news in retail and consumer products and other great stories.


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