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Author Mark Pendergrast takes us inside the cult of the world’s best-known brand. An excerpt from the expanded edition of “For God, Country & Coca-Cola.”
Twenty years ago, when Mark Pendergrast published the first edition of his voluminous unauthorized history of the world’s most famous product, Coca-Cola had recovered from the misguided launch of New Coke and protests over its investments in South Africa. Today the third edition of Pendergrast’s opus includes four new chapters, which chronicle the company’s recovery after a decade of leadership turnover as well as its foray into a new “cola war” of debates over soda’s role in the obesity epidemic. Pendergrast, an Atlanta native and graduate of the Westminster Schools, also includes new archival discoveries, such as additional evidence that Coca-Cola long ago contained cocaine.
In this excerpt from the 2013 edition of “For God, Country & Coca-Cola,” Pendergrast explores Coke’s cultish appeal—both within the walls of its headquarters on North Avenue and among fanatical consumers—and explains how the company’s philanthropic largesse creates a “halo effect” that masks its role in global politics.
Traditionally called “mecca” by devout employees, the North Avenue complex throbs with the worldwide Coca-Cola heartbeat. But the headquarters represent less than the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg. Worldwide nearly 150,000 people work directly for the Coca-Cola Company, but if you include those who work for Coke bottlers, that number jumps over 700,000. And that doesn’t count the drink’s 20 million retailers or the countless people who indirectly earn their livelihood from Coke by producing containers, trucks, water purifiers, pallets, computers, and the innumerable giveaway promotional items. In 2012, for the thirteenth consecutive year, Coca-Cola claimed the number-one spot on the Interbrand list of Best Global Brands.
There is no question that this fizzy, syrupy beverage means much more than Coca-Cola executives would have us believe. Certainly, it means more to them—it is a way of life, an obsession. The lobby at North Avenue headquarters used to feature a large medallion with an image of a Coke bottle superscribed on top of the globe, with visions of other galaxies yet to conquer spinning wildly above it. These guys really are missionaries. In their homes, many of them maintain what I privately term “Coca-Cola shrines”—autographed photos of Robert Woodruff, gold replicas of the hobbleskirt bottle, and other personal memorabilia.
Members of the international Coca-Cola Collectors Club are, if anything, more obsessed with their shrines. Germinating in a basement room or garage, their collections often literally pushed them out of their bedrooms and homes. “It’s kind of like a drug addiction,” one collector told me at a gathering that filled an entire Atlanta hotel. At the silent auction, where bids were placed on items and might be topped by someone else, the tension crackled. “It makes you sick, you’re so worried,” a Delaware woman moaned. Late into the night at these affairs, club members swapped and dickered, invading one another’s rooms.
While these fanatical collectors may simply appear ludicrous, they are not the only ones to take Coca-Cola seriously. Social commentators, political activists, nutritionists, and anthropologists have all attacked Coca-Cola as if it were the distillation of Evil on earth. One angry observer called Coca-Cola’s history “the most incredible mobilization of human energy for trivial purposes since the construction of the pyramids.” It was, he said, “what went wrong with the American dream.” Much of the criticism has focused on advertising, which, according to one distressed clinical psychologist, conveys the notion that “life will never be boring, that you will be sexually popular beyond your wildest dreams, and that you’ll always be able to dance well if you drink colas.”
Coke officials wouldn’t argue with that statement. In fact, it seems rather restrained. Beginning with John Pemberton, Frank Robinson, and Asa Candler, its manufacturers have touted the soft drink/patent medicine as a magical potion, though the message has been modified over time, abandoning overt medicinal claims in favor of uplift, joy, and other image-intense attributes. Nonetheless, it still bears a startling resemblance to the fabled Elixir of Life sought by the alchemists. Indeed, an eighteenth-century reference book defined an “elixir” as a “dark-coloured medicine composed of many ingredients and dissolved in a strong solvent”—a pretty good description of the acidic, caramel-colored soft drink.
GLOBAL COCA-COLA CULTURE
“Coke is the American’s fuel, just as television is his soul,” a German sneered in the late 1970s. Twenty years earlier, Adlai Stevenson asked, “With the supermarket as our temple, and the singing commercial as our litany, are we likely to fill the world with an irresistible vision of America’s purpose and inspiring way of life?” The current answer appears to be a resounding “YES!” Coca-Cola has indeed taught the world to sing to its harmonics, or it is doing so as quickly as possible.
There are hundreds of films in which Coca-Cola makes a cameo appearance (paid or unpaid), from King Kong (1933) to Casino Royale (2006) and beyond, making it the most widely placed product in the history of movies. Some filmmakers have used Coke as a convenient symbol of Western civilization—witness Dr. Strangelove and On the Beach, both films in which a Coke bottle serves as a wry commentary on our shallow values in the midst of Armageddon. At the beginning of The Gods Must Be Crazy, the totemic bottle falls out of the sky onto the sands of the Kalahari Desert, where it completely transforms the lives of the innocent Bushmen as surely as Eve’s apple in Eden. In The Coca-Cola Kid, a similar invasion takes place in Australia. In all of these films, the soft drink is presented as a sinister force, a harbinger of unhealthy values.
Whether Coke deserves such criticism or not, no one doubts that it is invasive. Many years ago, a Coca-Cola executive told his followers, “You have entered the lives of more people . . . than any other product or ideology, including the Christian religion,” and that truth has only grown more profound with the passage of time. Despite the rise of Google, Apple, and other global brands, Coca-Cola may remain the world’s most widely distributed single consumer product. Today, at North Avenue, Muhtar Kent and other senior Coke managers can punch their computers and call up the history of per capita consumption growth for any country as easily as Star Trek’s commander could summon details of obscure planets.
It is certainly unnerving when Coke marketers talk about the battle for the “share of stomach” or the drink’s executives discuss its “mind shelf space,” which keeps swelling, crowding out other, perhaps more worthy uses of our brain cells. And Coke wants to be in your heart as well, wooing “brand love.” Former Communists and Myanmar peasants aren’t alone in coveting Coke and other symbols of Western culture. Satellite, cable, cell phones, the Internet, and Facebook are bringing the Real Thing into homes and lives all over the world. It is Always Coca-Cola in all ways, with a universal appeal to Open Happiness. As Roberto Goizueta once put it, “People around the world are today connected to each other by brand-name consumer products as much as by anything else.” That’s why Coca-Cola executives must be world citizens. “We increasingly at Coca-Cola look for people who are comfortable living in Mumbai or in Germany or in Nairobi,” Muhtar Kent observed.
“From infancy to adulthood,” historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in 1980, “advertising is the air Americans breathe, the information we absorb, almost without knowing it. It floods our minds with pictures of perfection and goals of happiness easy to attain.” Now, decades later, advertising permeates the air that everyone breathes, as well as everything seen on the web. The message that they can Open Happiness by drinking Coke has led Mexicans, for instance, to spend their money—often a substantial part of their daily wages—on Company products, with the world’s leading annual per capita consumption of 728 beverages in 2011. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mexico also had the world’s highest obesity rate.
Whether harmful or not, the messages bounced from satellites or carried through cable certainly connect. In 1990, one researcher attempting to define the “global teenager” by surveying a representative sampling of young people from Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, Britain, Guatemala, India, Israel, Kenya, the Soviet Union, and Thailand discovered that, while only 40 percent could correctly identify the United Nations logo, 82 percent knew Coke’s symbol. Today, that figure is probably near 100 percent as Coca-Cola marketers, through campaigns such as “Move to the Beat” for the 2012 London Olympics, exploit what they called “a fusion of two global teen passions—sport and music.”
Although Coke unquestionably exerts an influence on cultures and does change drinking habits, local habits (and ethnic groups) are far stronger than many critics recognize. [Some observers] are horrified, for instance, that in regions such as Chiapas in Mexico, Coke and Pepsi are used in Mayan religious services in lieu of poch, the traditional alcoholic drink. The scene certainly is startling, as Indians in traditional Mayan dress pour Coca-Cola as a ritual offering. But the fact remains, they still are in traditional dress, and there still are rituals.
In a chapter entitled “The Future of Humanity,” an anthropology textbook portrayed a black-robed, gray-bearded patriarch reading the paper below a Hebraic Coca-Cola sign. “The worldwide spread of such products as Coca-Cola and Wrangler jeans,” the caption read, “is taken by some as a sign that a single, homogeneous world culture is developing.” Others refuse to panic, however. Already an accepted part of the landscape and lifestyle in an enormous array of cultures, Coca-Cola doesn’t appear to be destroying them. In the picture in the anthropology book, the Jewish patriarch is still wearing his black robes and reading his paper, not boogying in his blue jeans.
In other words, we might regard the current cross-pollination of cultures as a kind of evolution rather than a homogenization. The world may be flat, as author Thomas Friedman argued, but bumps and variations remain, and in some ways, as even Friedman has admitted, the Internet has led to greater individualism and protest. “The differences among races, nations, cultures, and their various histories are at least as profound and as durable as the similarities,” observed the late Australian essayist Robert Hughes, who predicted that the future belongs to “people who can think and act with informed grace across ethnic, cultural, linguistic lines”—a perfect description of today’s top Coca-Cola managers.
The Coca-Cola Company’s evolution exemplifies the subtleties of globalization. The Coca-Cola brand remains the “oxygen” of the Company, as Muhtar Kent has said, but soda sales are declining. It isn’t yet clear whether we are witnessing a long-term shift away from carbonated soft drinks or a modest decline that will bottom out. It’s too early to tell, but Coke now sells over 3,500 different drinks, carbonated or not, around the world. Many are local beverages that Coke bought out, while others were invented to appeal to a particular taste. In its determination to own world hydration, the Company has been forced to diversify, adapt, and experiment, even though it would undoubtedly prefer everyone to buy Coke. But combined sales of Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Zero are creeping up on regular Coca-Cola, and some day they might pass the much-maligned sugar-sweetened drink. At least they are all called by the sacred name.
What Coca-Cola does—with remarkable success—is identify the commonalities of human experience without necessarily altering cultures fundamentally. “You’ll find plenty of social scientists who’ll point up the differences,” Don Keough once told me, “but wherever I go, boys and girls meet, walk in parks, fall in love, get married, have children, have family gatherings. They celebrate the joys of life just the way you and I do.” Consequently, Coca-Cola is able to make its global advertising appeal to virtually all human beings.
Writing about Coke’s global availability, one American essayist commented, “Somehow that is very, very comforting. It means we can go into much of the world and find our security blanket waiting.” While that may sound like the statement of an Ugly American, other travelers who leave their native lands routinely experience the same feeling. For the German, Greek, Japanese, Argentine, or Nigerian, the sight of a familiar Coca-Cola sign is often reassuring. Coca-Cola is unlikely, however, to homogenize world culture completely, with religious sects, nationalistic fervor, and ethnic group loyalists more powerful than ever.
Roberto Goizueta was correct when he told a group of bright-eyed high school seniors, “Corporations are not as pious as I might be tempted to tell you they are. Nor are they evil as some portray them to be. The truth is somewhere in the middle.”
Just as missionaries believe that any human soul is ripe for the True Gospel, Coca-Cola marketers rarely distinguish among nations. “We believe in the future of [all] countries,” Don Keough once wrote. “We’ll ride through whatever political or economic conditions exist.” Consequently, Coke never pulled out of Chile when Pinochet was in power. Indeed, the Company appreciated the booming, stable economy under the South American dictator. Nor did the Company leave Indonesia because of atrocities committed by the Suharto regime. “We do have a social conscience,” one Coke manager told me, “but we don’t enter politics. We’ve never lost an election, because we never run. Our job is simply to provide a moment of pleasure to consumers around the world without concern for the form or type of government under which they live.” He paused and smiled broadly. “We make life a little brighter. We serve humanity.” Asa Candler would have applauded.
It seems disingenuous, however, to assert that Coca-Cola does not enter politics. At least since World War II, the soft drink, as highly charged with symbolism as with CO2, has been politics . . .
Coke made the most of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, despite activists’ protests, and the annual Chinese per capita consumption of Company products rose to thirty-eight in 2011. Muhtar Kent looked forward to the day China would become Coke’s top market. “It’s like a well-managed company, China,” Kent observed admiringly. “You have a one-stop shop in terms of the Chinese foreign investment agency.”
Coca-Cola executives argue that the only way to ensure Coke’s influence for good is to maintain their products’ ubiquitous presence. Besides, if Coke pulled out, Pepsi would simply move in unimpeded, a thought much worse than any human rights violations. Perhaps the influx of Coca-Cola and Big Macs creates goodwill towards the West and can soften China’s dictatorial, repressive policies more effectively than can sanctions.
Coca-Cola’s official South African divestiture in 1986 represented an exception to the policy of ignoring political considerations, but public opinion obviously dictated that decision. South Africa is one place where Coke officials clearly did serve humanity. Coca-Cola executives practiced a kind of corporate shuttle diplomacy, meeting with Nelson Mandela and other black leaders to assure them of the Company’s support in the struggle against apartheid and to ensure Coke a presence in the new order. In a bloodbath, Coke sales would have gone down. Coca-Cola remained a steadfast friend of Mandela throughout his South African presidency and moved its concentrate plant back into the country.
And therein lies the true beauty of capitalism. The Coca-Cola religion has no real morality, no commandment other than increased consumption of its drinks. Consequently, over its history it has been perfectly willing to coexist with Hitler, bejeweled Maharajas, impoverished migrant workers, malnourished Africans, Guatemalan death squads, clear-cut Belizean rainforests, or repressive Chinese. Unlike most world governments, however, the Coca-Cola Company eventually acts out of enlightened self-interest. Because it values its squeaky-clean image above all else, it generally reacts more quickly to bad publicity than any potentate.
And bad publicity will undoubtedly keep coming. I met Ray Rogers of the Killer Coke campaign at the April 2012 annual Coca-Cola shareholders meeting in an Atlanta suburb, where he and his cohorts repeatedly interrupted Muhtar Kent with a rehearsed call-and-response of “Point of order—you lie!” Kent fielded hostile questions about discarded beverage bottles, worker intimidation in Mexico, chemical caramel, high-fructose corn syrup, and water depletion in India. The newest flap involved alleged racial discrimination against black and Latino workers at two Coca-Cola plants in New York, involving purportedly unfavorable work assignments, unfair discipline and retaliation, and a work environment where racial slurs went unchallenged by management. In an obviously staged response, Kent called on four supportive black employees from the New York plants to stand up at the meeting, and he suggested that Ray Rogers meet with them afterwards, but they subsequently refused to talk to him.
Consequently, it is arguably up to us, the public, to monitor Coke’s corporate behavior. Faced with boycotts of sufficient size, loud enough protests, documentaries of appropriate proportion, or shareholder resolutions representing large enough chunks of stock, the Company will act. Sometimes, it will even act preemptively to avoid such trouble. For its own selfish ends, then, Coca-Cola does indeed try to promote the peace and harmony it promises in its commercials.
And the Company’s pursuit of the halo effect through do-good activities really does good. Neville Isdell coined the phrase “Connected Capitalism” to describe “a true marriage between government, nonprofits, and global corporations to fight disease and poverty, heal the planet, improve education, and, ultimately, boost private-sector profits.” Muhtar Kent called it the “Golden Triangle of business, government, and civil society.” Through partnerships with organizations such as the Gates Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund, Coke helped to supply safe water, vaccines, and insecticide-treated bed nets to the poor; to ameliorate climate change; to protect endangered species; and more. The Company promoted physical activity, recycling, education, and water stewardship. In 2011, primarily through its Coca-Cola Foundation, the Company donated $123.5 million to charitable causes, amounting to 1.2 percent of operating income.
At the annual meeting, Kent repeated one of his favorite anecdotes about Preeti Gupta, who started a small store that thrived in her living room in rural India. Coca-Cola gave her a solar-powered cooler so that she could sell chilled Cokes and charge a lantern so her children could see to study at night. And Coke made a few more sales. The Company touts its 5by20 program, aiming to empower 5 million women to become successful entrepreneurs—selling Coke products, collecting recyclables, growing mangos—by 2020. Through Kiva.org (which has no connection to Coca-Cola), I have helped fund microcredit loans to needy businesses in the developing world, and I noticed that several businesses run by women in the devastated Democratic Republic of the Congo were requesting money to buy and sell Fanta.
In 2006, when I was researching Inside the Outbreaks [a book about public health efforts], I visited rural schools in western Kenya where the drinking water came from polluted streams and ponds that sickened and sometimes killed the children. The simple, innovative Safe Water System got the schools to add diluted bleach to the water, dispensed from special narrow-mouthed jars with spigots, and taught the children to wash their hands. There, in the middle of nowhere, Coca-Cola logos were painted on the washing stations outside the latrines. Coke was helping to pay for the program.
In the perfect world of a Coke executive’s dreams, the biggest conflicts will be similar to the fight between Miss World and Miss Universe of 1995—the latter signed up to advertise Coke, while her rival shilled for Pepsi. Or consider that when Barack Obama accepted the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination at Denver’s Pepsi Center, Coca-Cola Recycling was there to grab the empties, while Coke products were served at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, where Obama gave his acceptance speech. In this perfect world, global politics will be run, not by small-minded, war-prone, ethnocentric nation-states, but by benign multinationals that want only for you to swallow their beverages. Their local bottlers—Serbs, Albanians, Hutus, Tutsis, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Tibetans, Germans, French, Russians, Americans, Arabs, Jews—will discourage strife in order to boost per capita consumption. All you need to restore tranquility is a good burp.
Unfortunately for Coca-Cola (and perhaps the rest of us), the world doesn’t work that way all the time. In the post–Cold War euphoria of the mid-1990s, it appeared a global economy based on unrestrained international free enterprise might lead automatically to greater good for all. But economic downturn shook confidence in the late 1990s, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center in 2001, and the world fell into a prolonged recession in 2008. Wars, violence, and upheaval continue.
With such harsh realities in mind, it is difficult to take critics too seriously when they rant against Coca-Cola as the monstrous corporation ruining the world. Given the choice between a fizzy soft drink and a suicide bomber, I’ll grab the Coke any day.
Mark Pendergrast discusses with Rebecca Burns what's changed—and what remains the same—about the hometown giant.
Your updates include a section on the new “cola wars,” in which Coke and Pepsi, rather than battling each other, now jointly battle blame for the U.S. obesity epidemic. Just how culpable are the companies? In a recent ad called “Coming Together,” touting its part in coping with the obesity epidemic, the Coca-Cola Company acknowledges that its sugary beverages are part of the problem but points out, “If you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.” It concludes that “the well-being of our families and communities concerns everyone, and finding a solution will take continued effort from all of us.” The ad points out that a quarter of Coke’s beverages are now low- or no-calorie. That said, sugary soft drinks are indeed a big part of the problem, and Coke and Pepsi advertising continues to suggest that drinking them will make you happy, energetic, and sexy.
So do you drink Coke? There is nothing better after exercise on a hot summer day than a Coca-Cola with crushed ice. Otherwise, I don’t drink many soft drinks. I’m partial to Sprite when offered a choice.
What “halo effect” has the company created in its hometown through its corporate philanthropy and that of its wealthy leadership? It is almost impossible to overestimate the positive impact Coca-Cola money has had on the city of Atlanta, including its contributions to Emory University and other educational institutions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Atlanta BeltLine, and innumerable other worthy Atlanta causes and organizations.
You document upheaval: three CEOs between 2000 and the present. This is in marked contrast to the long tenures of Robert Woodruff (three decades) and Roberto Goizueta (almost two). Is Coke harder to lead now, and if so, why? All multinational corporations are challenging to lead nowadays, with politics, war, economic upheaval, social issues, and bottom-line issues to deal with. Yet such challenges are not new. Robert Woodruff faced all of them, though perhaps not quite as globally.
Coca-Cola has an advantage over many other products and companies because of the immense brand equity it has developed over the last century-plus, with an amazingly consistent mission, selling beverages that offer a substantial profit margin.
There are reasons Doug Ivester and Doug Daft had problems during the 1997 to 2004 period over which they had no control, yet I think most readers will conclude that the quality of leadership of a CEO—just one person—makes a huge difference. Neville Isdell came into a very troubled company with morale at rock bottom, and he turned it around. And Muhtar Kent is aggressively building on that momentum. He is likely to remain at the helm through 2020 or longer.
Controversial Coca-Cola lore holds the original formula contained cocaine, which you say the book documents “beyond the shadow of a doubt.” What evidence cements this assertion? Many pieces of evidence. Inventor John Pemberton wrote and spoke admiringly about the wonders of the coca leaf and its alkaloid, cocaine. In this new edition, I include a facsimile of a version of the original Coca-Cola formula in Frank Robinson’s handwriting. The formula contains “F.E. Coca”—fluid extract of coca leaf. Asa Candler openly talked about his drink’s cocaine content to a reporter in 1891 and in subsequent courtroom testimony. Coca-Cola is still made using fluid extract of coca leaf, but it has been decocainized since 1903.