Brands Double Down, Flipping Off the Narrow-minded

9 Feb

CokeAmerica

Click to see the 90-second spot.

The 2014 Olympics may just be underway, but it seems safe to say they’ll be known for years to come as the equality games. In a curious cross-section of pop culture, politics, and marketing, it has become as fashionable to tout equality for all, especially the LGBT community, as it is to wrap yourself in the flag.

BugA large part of this stems from the extreme homophobia that is rampant across Russia and entrenched in its laws. Sure, we have plenty of bigots and homophobes right here at home. But the Russians make such a great bad guy.

That, however, is only part of the story. There is, as the folk song says, something happening here. Brands big and small are stepping off the neutrality line and taking big bold stands for equal rights.

Google doodle

Google did it on the first day of the games with a Google Doodle that quoted the Olympic charter in defense of anti-discrimination. NBC took time from its opening night interview with President Barack Obama to talk about the USA’s selection of openly gay athletes to lead its official delegation.

But the ultimate FU to the Russians, and the narrow-minded here at home, comes in from Coke, which re-tooled its Super Bowl ad, It’s Beautiful, featuring a multilingual rendition of the iconic song America The Beautiful. The latest version is now a 90-second spot and opens with the phrase e pluribus unum, Latin for “out of many, one.”

If you’ve been living under a rock, Coke first ran a version of the ad during the Super Bowl and promptly triggered a massive wave of backlash from people angry at hearing anything other than “Americans” singing in English.  If you missed the craziness, check out the hashtag #FuckCoke. Indeed, those behind the screen at Coke described the mayhem, while standing understandably tall and proud.

After a week of battling a vocal minority and even biting criticism from Fox News, you’d think Coke would be ready to roll out a mainstream feel-good spot for the opening ceremony. But Coke was not about to back down. In announcing the longer cut of the commercial on its blog, the company left no doubt what it was trying to say.

“Created specifically for this evening, the new spot reinforces the sentiment of unity and that America is beautiful and Coca-Cola is for everyone,”  the brand said. “The overall message of inclusion communicated by the ad reflects some of Coca-Cola’s most important values,”

All of that is great as corporate-speak goes. But take a moment and really think about the calculus behind this spot, and other recent controversial ads such as from Cheerios. These are publicly traded companies, with an obligation to shareholders. So big gestures are nice, but only if they are certain not to damage the brand or profits in the long run.

In a conference room at Coke HQ in downtown Atlanta there was a frank discussion about who this ad would piss off, and the implications of the inevitable backlash. And in the end, Coke decided those people aren’t as important as the audience that would rally behind the spot. Or, put another way, those who got annoyed don’t matter.

“Consider it the death throes of an aging, and increasingly irrelevant, demographic,” Brian Sheehan, an associate professor of advertising at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, told Brian Steinberg  in his great analysis for Variety.

Truth be told, I think it’s something of an overstatement to paint the critics as a demographic. There are people at every age, race, and geography who have evolved their thinking and openly accept gay marriage, LGBT rights, and mixed-race families. No, the people who find themselves fighting the tide of history here are isolated pockets (and perhaps even doomsday bunkers), with their fears stoked by opportunistic pundits and politicians.

How sad is it that a brand like Coke has to be the one to explain that it’s time to move on?

About Project TILWO — I watch Sochi 2014 Olympic coverage on TV and online then share the lessons I learn, with occasional help from my friends. Edited by Lynn Hess @ Premier Proofing.