Since the Super Bowl I have been thinking about the Cheerios and Coca Cola commercials that created a torrent of racist Tweets and commentary. The Cheerios commercial featured a beautiful biracial family. The Coca-Cola commercial played “America the Beautiful” in a multiplicity of languages.
That right wing bigots took offense to such ads, however, was not what surprised me. We could have foreseen just such an up swell of racism from the Twittersphere if we simply remembered that an earlier Cheerios commercial back in May featuring a biracial family caused a similar explosion of social media bigotry.1 What shocked me was the response by those people on the left who championed Cheerios and Coca-Cola on social media.
My colleagues and friends on the left championed both Cheerios and Coca Cola as brands with progressive leaning politics, the one with its depiction of a perfectly lovely and normal biracial family and the other with its expression of the multiculturalism that makes America great. I saw Tweets and Facebook posts that extolled both companies for being on the right side of cultural issues. With those sentiments, I agree, but I was nevertheless baffled by those responses from people who otherwise challenge the existing social order and cite Slavoj Zizek with regularity. The problem here is that the two ads function as calls to capitalism and consumerism just as any ad run during the Super Bowl is intended to do.
I do not fault Cheerios or Coca Cola, and do think their decision to run ads that challenged the very narrow view of America and of families and of what America or American families are supposed to look like. In those respects, I too laud those companies for their more inclusive and holistic view of them. The problem, for me, is that in doing so, those commercials represent a more insidious attack on the left and on progressivism precisely because they co-opt those very positive elements of progressivism into a form that still constitutes a call for conspicuous consumption. It is the combination of those two elements that I, as a leftist, find offensive.
While some may see the commercials as offering a better form of capitalism, I find such moves somewhat coercive when it comes to the way co-opting the left becomes a type of coercion that wrenches social issues into the service of capitalist ideology. The implicit message behind such moves is that multiculturalism can be brought to you by Coca Cola or that racial harmony can be achieved through a bowl of cereal. What such ads give us is capitalism with a multicultural face; capitalism with a biracial face. But both simply give us capitalism in a form more palatable to the left and it is that form that makes it more problematic as an expression of progressivism.
Even as I write this, I find myself drawn towards praising both companies for their messages, and from within the realm of late capitalism both offer positive examples of marketing that is more inclusive. That is what makes this cooptation all the more seductive and potentially dangerous in my eyes. Let’s be clear. Coca Cola and Cheerios both made choices to go with advertisements that present a form of progressivism, but those moves were calculated moves intent upon promoting their brands. The intent, even if it was within the minds of those who made or those who approved the ads, was not to present a progressive message but to sell goods and to increase market share. They know those on the left are vulnerable to such advertisements.
The real problem here is that the market is so quick to exploit progressive causes for monetary gain, and while they do do some social good, they are, at their core, nothing but calls to capitalism. Let’s not go the way of the religious right who buys chicken sandwiches to show their love of God; let’s not be so readily fooled into believing that buying certain products, goods, or services actually help either racial harmony or multiculturalism. Let’s remember that these types of products of popular culture only provide us with an image of capitalism with a human—albeit biracial or multicultural—face.
- Of course, that must come as news to MSNBC who fired an intern for commenting on this fact before the Super Bowl even aired last night. I trust, after last night’s display of vile racist Tweets, that intern has been issued an apology and has been offered her job back. (back)