In the early 1970s, I was a copywriter for the subscription-services department of McGraw-Hill which published a variety of specialized industry journals. Among them was a magazine called Power that served utilities and power-generation equipment companies.
Being young — and being what today I might call terminally hip — I came up with a headline/graphic concept which I thought was wildly funny and ever so current, something to be used in ads, direct mail pieces, or issue insert cards.
I recruited an acquaintance to pose for a photo in the then-typical protest posture, his right arm raised, but with a light bulb in his hand. The headline read…
Power to the People…
…the People who Know
What Power’s All About
Our assistant art director, a talented young lady about my age, did a quick layout, and I showed it to the Mail Promotion Manager — our internal equivalent of an ad agency account executive — who handled Power’s marketing campaigns. I was sure this concept was going to knock his socks off.
The MPM, whose name was Leon, chuckled at the image, volunteered that the idea was cute, and then handed the layout back to me.
“What’s the matter with it?” I asked. “It’s timely. It’s topical. It’s humorous.”
“Oh yes, it’s all of that,” Leon said. “But the people who read Power are a bunch of sturdy engineer types. Pragmatic and conservative. They’d see the guy in that picture as somebody who’d likely blow up a power plant.”
Looking at the layout with new eyes, I grudgingly conceded that Leon had a point. And so I learned something about perception in advertising.
This episode came to mind when I read about the little dustup surrounding Coca-Cola’s “America the Beautiful” Super Bowl spot.
I’m sure whoever thought of having people of different ethnic types singing this cherished national song in their native languages saw it as a heartwarming expression of the nation’s cultural diversity — the great American melting pot, as it were. They may well have expected their commercial to become a 21st-Century equivalent of Coke’s famous “I’d like to teach the world to sing…” campaign. But they missed the same thing I’d failed to see in my Power ad concept: people’s underlying assumptions.
Where the 1971 commercial suggested buying the world a Coke as a token of international friendship or universal brotherhood, it was clearly based on a fundamental cultural assumption: that Coca-Cola, the archetypal fruit of American invention and entrepreneurship, was loved by people in all countries.
In that sense, the 1971 commercial celebrated the triumph of American culture, and so touched the hearts of U.S. radio listeners and TV viewers. By contrast, people saw this new Super Bowl spot as a dilution of American culture. Casting the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” in foreign languages was derisive of our uniqueness.
Far better for the producers to have shown ethnic performers singing the words in English, each in their own accent. This would have signaled the willingness of current immigrants to embrace America — to adapt themselves to U.S. cultural norms — which would have been widely applauded.
That critical distinction is at the heart of the current debate over immigration reform. Reluctance to offer amnesty to illegals or insistence on stricter border security is not — as leftist critics charge — a sign of nativist intransigence. Rather, it reflects the deep fear, which has surfaced at various times throughout our history, that new waves of immigration will overwhelm our culture and economy, compromising our unique national character and way of life.
As I wrote in a blog post last summer…
“First and foremost is a fact that has ascended to the level of cliché but which remains true nonetheless: We are a nation of immigrants. There is nobody living in this country — indeed, in the entire Western Hemisphere — who’s not an immigrant or a descendent of individuals who came here from somewhere else.”
But while coming to America is the very essence of our national story…
“It is not a sign of racism or jingoism or nationalist supremacy to require that foreigners respect U.S. borders and follow legitimate immigration procedures — or to insist that American citizenship confers certain rights and privileges that aren’t available to non-citizens.”
The media continue to present the immigration issue primarily as a political drama. There’s an understandable fixation on how this great debate will be influenced by the Republicans or the Democrats, whether a comprehensive or incremental approach will prevail in crafting new legislation, and which party stands to benefit from the final shape of the law.
All well and good. But what tends to fall outside this narrow political focus is the idea of principled resistance. There are good reasons the majority of Americans demand that our leaders get things right in reforming immigration.
Yes, a certain sense of cultural superiority underlies this concern — and there are good reasons for that too.
Throughout our history, people have voted with their feet, taking great risks and bearing enormous personal and family sacrifice, to come to America. It’s not for nothing that Abraham Lincoln referred to our country, our freedoms, and our national aspirations as “the last best hope of earth.”
If this offends your internationalist pretensions, get over it!
America may not yet have succeeded in teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony. But you can’t blame us for worrying that the song could end on a sour note.
Politicians of both parties should bear that in mind during this election year.
Power to the people!
Here’s a link to my thoughts about the immigration reform debate posted back on June 20…
…and followed up a week or so later after some thought-provoking comments from a Michigan reader…
In August, I looked specifically at how the Catholic Church was weighing in on reform…
In case you’re curious about how the famous 1971 Coke ad came about, here’s an interesting tidbit of corporate history from the website of The Coca-Cola Company…