One of the most controversial Super Bowl ads this year did not rely on the usual tactics, such as humor, shock, a catchy tune, or clever turns of phrase. Instead, the much-talked-about advertisement from Coca-Cola simply presented the song, "America, the Beautiful" in seven different languages. Outrage swiftly ensued, as evidenced by a newly created hashtag on Twitter: #speakamerican. Some even began calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola products.
Why all the fuss? Many Americans feel that the only language that should be used is English, not just on Super Bowl Sunday, but every day of the year. Is advertising in multiple languages somehow anti-American, or is multilingualism actually the American way?
Here are some important facts:
• The United States has no official language. In fact, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, it can be considered discriminatory to fail to provide access to government services or information to individuals with limited English proficiency.
• 60 million people in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home. This means that for every 5 people watching the Superbowl, at least 1 was probably speaking a language that wasn't English. In fact, many viewers were watching in another language too, thanks to the first-ever Spanish-language Superbowl broadcast.
• There are 381 languages that are commonly spoken within U.S. borders. The most popular are Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Arabic, per the latest American Community Survey data.
• America was multilingual long before English was spoken here. Of the 381 languages spoken here today, 169 of these languages are Native North American languages. While the ancestral languages of American natives are often forgotten, there are still 372,000 people speaking them today.
• Many of the founding fathers were multilingual. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams all spoke multiple languages. In fact, of 44 American presidents, at least half could speak or write a language other than English.
• Nearly everyone is the product of immigration. With the exception of those who can claim Native American ancestry, everyone else in America is the product of foreigners.
Many people will be critical of Coca-Cola's decision to showcase non-English languages in the context of such a patriotic song, because they feel it threatens their idea of what it means to be American, even if that conception is out of touch with America's multilingual history and current reality.
If Coca-Cola had wanted to avoid negative publicity, it could have simply elected to use Native American languages like Navajo, Dakota, and Cherokee. Instead, it chose to use foreign languages, which are commonly spoken nowadays within U.S. borders, but which are definitely more controversial.
The creators of the Coca-Cola ad surely knew they would push buttons for a lot of Super Bowl viewers and that the ensuing controversy would put the company in the headlines. While the ad surely makes a statement about the multilingual nature of America, the end goal is, of course, publicity. Even if some of what's being said is negative, the company still achieved their objective. The whole purpose of the ad was to get people talking about Coca-Cola -- in any language.