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For God, Country and Coca Cola.

"Southerners need carbonation," according to a character in one of Nancy Lemann's novels. Certainly the South's hot climate, its religious strictures on alcohol, and perhaps a regional tendency to hypochondria combined in the late nineteenth century to make it the principal font of the modem soft drink, and for whatever reason, Southerners still lead the nation in soda pop consumption. In one recent year, North Carolina's per capita consumption was 55.4 gallons--enough, I'm told, to leach the calcium from many Tar Heel bones and make stress fractures a minor public health problem.

Like Carolina's Pepsi and Texas' Dr Pepper, Georgia's Coca-Cola began as a patent medicine. John Pemberton, a Confederate veteran who had moved to Atlanta to seek his fortune, was one of many Southern pharmacists who saw the commercial opportunities offered by the newly popular soda fountain in a region characterized by widespread "neurasthenia" among Southern ladies (who were supposed to be high-strung) and depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction among Confederate veterans (Pemberton himself was a morphine addict). When Atlanta went dry in 1886, Pemberton was ready with a "temperance drink" he called Coca-Cola, after the coca leaf and the kola nut used in its production. Yes, despite what the guides at Coke's new Atlanta museum have been told to say and the company president's insistence in a 1959 statement that Coca-Cola was a "meaningless but fanciful and alliterative name," the real Classic Coke did contain cocaine.

By 1902, however, the dope had been removed because of pressure from clergy and public opinion alarmed by the spectre of Negro coke fiends. By then the marketing genius of Frank Robinson, a native of Maine and a Union army veteran, had transformed the product from a nostrum to a soft drink, and this Southern gift to civilization soon escaped its native habitat. Fifty years after its invention, Coca-Cola had become as much of a symbol of America as the Statue of Liberty, "a sublimated essence of all that America stands for," in the words of journalist William Allen White. By its centenary, Coke had transcended mere nationality, and its advertising was teaching the world to sing in over 135 countries and over 60 languages. Today, three-quarters of the company's profits come from overseas sales, and Iceland (of all places) leads the world in per capita consumption. In its first 50 years, the company sold nearly a billion gallons of syrup; in the next decade, the company sold a billion more. A $200 share of 1892 stock, with dividends reinvested, would be worth $500 million today.

The key to the Coca-Cola story lies in the enormous profits to be made selling colored, flavored water. At the turn of the century, a $1 gallon of syrup yielded $6.40 at the fountain, enough for everyone involved to make money (often a great deal of it) while leaving enough to spend on marketing to guarantee that nobody could escape the product, its spokesmen, or its advertising. (The company now spends $4 billion annually on marketing.) The result, as Mark Pendergrast amply documents, has been a sort of cultural ubiquity. As one company man put it, not exaggerating at all, Coke has "entered the lives of more people . . . than any other product or ideology, including the Christian religion."

Pendergrast is an Atlantan on both sides of his family, and his interest in Coke is practically congenital. (Coke president Robert Woodruff proposed, unsuccessfully, to Pendergrast's grandmother.) He tells this commercial success story well, tracing the ins and outs of ownership and management struggles, examining the tensions between the company and its independent bottlers, and sketching profiles of the powerful and often unpleasant characters who built and managed the company. Along the way he looks at Coke's deft dealings with an array of critics at home and abroad, from the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry in 1902, to the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Nazi Health Ministry, Mao Tse Tung (who denounced Coke as the "opiate of the running dogs of revanchist capitalism"), and Jesse Jackson.

Coca-Cola has, after all, affected everything from urban mythology (the Coke and aspirin high) to Cold War mixology (the Cuba Libre). It has inspired country songs ("Coca-Cola Cowboy") and rock lyrics ("Coca-Cola Douche"). In movies, Coke containers have dropped from the Kalakari sky in The Gods Must Be Crazy, and tapped at an end-of-the-world radio key in On the Beach. In real life they've figured in allegations of sexual misbehavior against Fatty Arbuckle and Clarence Thomas. The beverage has longstanding ties to such American touchstones as McDonald's and Disneyland, and Coke ads have appropriated icons ranging from Uncle Sam to Santa Claus to Mickey Mouse.

In fact, nearly everyone this side of Mother Teresa seems to have had a Coke connection. Every American sport and entertainment hero except Elvis seems to have appeared in its commercials: Ty Cobb, Jesse Owens, Ozzie and Harriet, Eddie Fisher, Anita Bryant, Floyd Patterson, Ray Charles (who later defected to Pepsi), Neil Diamond, Bill Cosby, and scores of others. Hitler reportedly quaffed the drink while watching Gone With the Wind in his private theater. In post-war Germany, Marshal Zukhov couldn't be seen drinking imperialist brew, so General Mark Clark provided him with Coke specially made to be colorless. Desmond Tutu defused a protest over Coke's half-hearted South African disinvestment policy by appearing in a smiling picture with the company's president. Adolfo Calero was a Coca-Cola bottler until the Sandinistas grabbed his plant. Even the young Hillary Rodham makes an appearance in this book, denouncing Joseph Califano as a "sell out" and a "shit" for representing a Coca-Cola executive before a Senate subcommittee investigating conditions for migrant workers in the company's citrus groves.

It's all here: everything you ever wanted to know about Coca-Cola (including the secret formula) and probably much else besides. One chapter, for instance, examines how American fighting men in World War Il completed the coalescence of Coke and country. Pendergrast offers a barrage of such interesting Coke facts as the price of a wartime black-market bottle (generally $5 to $40, but one brought $4,000 at an auction in Italy) and the battle password for crossing the Rhine (guess what). The author of God Is My Co-Pilot was not the only American who believed himself to be fighting for "America, Democracy, and Coca-Cola"; Pemberton quotes extensively from other GIs' letters home to prove the point. So important was Coke to the war effort ("the cause that refreshes," as one wag put it) that the company was exempted from sugar rationing, and German and Japanese POWs were assigned to work in its bottling plants.

Ironically, just as European intellectuals began to complain about the "coca-colonization"--meaning Americanization--of the postwar world, Coca-Cola began its transformation (as one executive put it) from "an American company with branches abroad [to] a multi-national business," overcoming such obstacles as the Arab boycott and the fact that the Chinese characters closest to the sound of Coca-Cola mean "bite the wax tadpole." The company's internationalization illustrates Jefferson's observation that the merchant has no country. It offers something to offend everyone, whether it be Coke's third-party supply arrangements with Communist China during the Cold War, lingering acquiescence in apartheid, or the replacement of Norman Rockwell by "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing."

Cola nuts

Pendergrast also examines Coke's changing responses to the Pepsi challenge. For decades Big Red could simply ignore its competitor. In a 1948 poll of veterans, two thirds identified Coke as their favorite soft drink; only 8 percent chose Pepsi. True, Pepsi offered more drink for the consumer's nickel, but it was widely viewed as "oversweet bellywash for kids and poor people," and, in the South, as a Negro drink. Coke's often radical marketing innovations have been coupled with extreme conservatism. The company's logo dates from 1887, its formula from the turn of the century, its six-ounce "Mae West" bottle from 1914. But during the fifties and sixties Pepsi slowly gained ground, and by the late seventies it actually surpassed Coke in supermarket sales and advertising dollars. The company's executives responded reluctantly: first, in 1955, with "King Size Coke"; then with competitive advertising, which implicitly recognized that Pepsi existed; finally, in 1985, with the sweeter, more Pepsi-like "New Coke."

My favorite of the many delightful stories in this book has to do with New Coke's reception. Despite its victories in "scientific" blind taste tests, the new product was rejected by American consumers as inferior in every way (even, according to a Harvard Medical School study, in its spermacidic properties). Interviewed at a supermarket, one elderly Atlanta lady said, "To use the vernacular of the teenagers, it sucks." The company received over 40,000 letters of protest and as many as 8,000 irate phone calls a day. "There are only two things in my life: God and Cca-Cola," one customer wrote. "Now you have taken one of these things away from me." Another complained, "I don't think I would be more upset if you were to bum the flag on our front yard."

During the furor, the company's president joked, "I'm sleeping like a baby. I wake up crying every hour." Although he continued to insist that the new formulation was superior, Coca-Cola (unlike, say, the Episcopal Church or the U.S. Government) knows how to cut its losses when it has a product nobody wants. When the restoration of "Classic Coke" was greeted with hosannas, ironically turning the greatest marketing blunder of all time into a commercial triumph, one executive said: "Some critics will say Coca-Cola made a marketing mistake. Some cynics will say we planned the whole thing. The truth is that we are not that dumb, and we are not that smart." (The company's president still doggedly drinks New Coke, now relabeled "Coke II." When it was renamed, Atlanta Journal-Constitution readers suggested such slogans as "Coke II: The embarrassment continues," and "Coke II: It's not like we spilled it in Prince George Sound.")

The book is full of wonderful stories and tidbits like these. Pendergrast's asides on the world and national politics are often banal, and his efforts at anthropological analysis have an earnest, term-paper quality about them ("As a sacred symbol, Coca-Cola includes varying |worshipful' moods, ranging from exaltation to pensive solitude, from near-orgasmic togetherness to playful games of chase."). But when he simply sticks to reporting the Cokelore he has gathered so assiduously, he is superb.
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Author:Reed, John Shelton
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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