By Mark Thomas
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At once hilarious and disturbing, Thomas builds a very detailed and damning case against the world’s most ubiquitous drink.
Globalisation can claim to have won on the day elderly grandparents started wearing trainers. Somehow it just seems wrong that a generation who fought and defeated the Nazis with sacrifice, ration books and allotments should endure the graceless experience of Footlocker. At that moment this very generation who had endured wars, created welfare states and could mend radios and bikes changed into consumers. It was around the same time that someone decided that instead of selling things with guarantees it was more profitable to sell the goods and then sell the guarantee too.
My own grandmother lived to ninety-eight and was no role model for sobriety or chastity. Her name was Margaret Isabel and she had more lovers than her family will ever know. She was small but got into fights because she hated bullies. And when I went to stay with her as a boy she would bounce me on her knee, sing Geordie folk songs and entrance me with the smoke rings she could blow. She could also flip the lit end of the cigarette into her mouth, blow smoke through the now protruding filter and then pop the lit end out again, using only her tongue. I utterly adored her. She was a unique woman, who took pride in her family’s shoes being polished. I’m glad she never wore a trainer. But I cannot smell Coca-Cola without thinking of her. That is my admission. I used to love drinking Coca-Cola. Moreover, whenever I held a glass of just poured Coca-Cola to my lips and felt the bubbles popping under my nose, I would think of my nan. It was a Pavlovian response. When I stayed with her, every day began with the two of us making a trip to a coffee shop. She would have an Embassy and a coffee and I would have a Coca-Cola and a sticky bun. It is one of my favourite memories.
To this extent I was a classic Coke drinker. It was a treat when I was young. I’d drink Coke all the time in my twenties and Diet Coke in my thirties. I even dabbled with caffeine-free Diet Coke, which is about as pointless as consumerism can get. Coca-Cola is essentially sugar and caffeine and water, so take out two of the main ingredients and really I was just buying chemically treated water with a nice logo. But I fell into the ultimate Coca-Cola advertising trap when I started associating an intricate part of my life, the memory of my grandmother, with their product. Weaving their drink into our lives has been Coke’s greatest advertising feat. Why am I telling you this? The fact is that before I looked into the Company I enjoyed their drink. Immensely. And Fanta, too. All I am saying really is: my name is Mark and I’m a recovering Coca-Cola drinker…one day at a time.
‘The Coca-Cola Company is on a journey. It is a bold journey…fuelled by our deep conviction that collectively we can create anything we desire…Ultimately, this journey will be propelled by unleashing the collective genius of our organisation…it is our very nature to innovate, create and excel. It is who we are.’
The Coca-Cola Company, Manifesto for Growth1
I am not that great a traveller. I may like to think of myself as mix between Hunter S Thompson and Michael Palin but in reality I am a middle-aged fat dad with asthma, trudging around the world with half-eaten bars of Kendal Mint Cake and a six-pack of Ventolin inhalers.
I’m fond of neither airplanes nor airports, believing them to be the secular limbo of the badly dressed. No one wears their best clothes to fly in and as a rule, the larger the flyer the more likely they are to be decked in sportswear. Thus creatures the size of sea mammals trawl departure lounges in clinging tracksuit bottoms that serve only to highlight the disparity between sporting aspiration and achievement. I know: I’m one of them. I’m a man who has seen too many airports in too few hours; my eyes are glazed, my pallor is pasty and I’m starting to look like my police picture. Atlanta is my seventh airport in five days. I have been propelled to 36,000 foot in metal tubes so many times that my ears pop if I walk up a flight of stairs, and after 4,207 miles of recycled air and microwaved food my breath tastes like someone else’s fart.
There is no greater reminder of the reasons, need and urgency for reducing air travel than airports and spending time in them. I wince at the carbon footprint I am going to leave, though it occurs to me that no one pointed the carbon footprint finger at the United Nations Climate Change Conference and that was in Bali - an island in the Indian Ocean, a location which enabled only Balinese delegates to reduce emissions by walking or getting the bus. Everyone else had to fly. I decide there is a corrupt UN official in charge of such conferences who collects air miles.
Such is the mental state of my meanderings. I have stood in too many queues with my shoes in my hands over the past few days. Only half an hour ago I saw an elderly couple, with cardigans and travel sweets, shuffle to the front of the line at the metal detectors. They respectfully asked, ‘Do we have to take our shoes off?’
‘Yes, ma’am. Shoes off and into the tray,’ said the member of staff who had obviously excelled at brusqueness training school.
‘Shoes…’ They looked at each other and shrug.
‘Shoes and belts please,’ he barked.
‘Belts and jackets, please into the tray.’
A large young black woman turned to them confidently and said, ‘It’s the same all over, you wanna go anywhere these days you gotta get half-naked, honey. That’s the truth.’ Then, staring directly at the security guard, she yelped, ‘Come on. Let’s get them off.’ And she begins to disrobe in a manner that can only be described as hostile.
I smile at the memory and traipse through a row of the terminal gift shops looking for something to read and a present to take home for my children. This isn’t shopping, this is Groundhog Day. Another airport, another baseball cap; same cap, different city, just a matter of changing place names and animals. And so the Chicago Bears become the Miami Dolphins, who become the Washington Pandas, who in turn morph into the Georgia Head Lice or some other sporting mascot. The hats are on stands placed strategically around the newsagent’s cash register and sweet display, while the walls are packed with magazines ranging from Home & Garden to Guns & Ammo, shelf loads of glossy front covers featuring cars, bridal dresses, computers and Britney Spears. There are hundreds of magazines here. To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill: never in the history of consumerism have so many been offered so much of so little.
On one display stand alongside the hats is a pyramid of shot glasses, little tumblers for downing spirits in a gulp. These glasses have I ♡ OUR TROOPS over a khaki background so while the troops are living under fire some patriotic stay-at-home is getting drunk on their behalf. Next to the glasses is a pile of teddy bears, little soft toys full of Styrofoam beans or some such stuff. Each is decorated in the US army desert camouflage kit, complete with Stars and Stripes on its chest and a plaintive stare on its little face. It is as if the bear is saying ‘I’ve seen some things out there man. Things a bear shouldn’t see.’
‘Who buys this crap?’ I think. Tired idiots with a misfiring sense of kitsch value, I conclude, slouching into a moulded plastic seat, sweaty and glazed with a soldier teddy bear on my lap.
I sit, pale and tired, watching the display boards and listening for flight information on Colombia, my next destination being Bogota. My journey is seven airports, five days and four cities old and now I’m heading off to the cocaine capitol of the world with a teddy bear dressed like a US marine…
Oh God, what have I done…
At this moment in time you may well be asking yourself three questions: ‘Where has Mark been, why is he going to Colombia and more importantly, have I kept the receipt for this book?’
To which the short answers are: the Coca-Cola museum, to meet a Coca-Cola deliveryman and I don’t know.
You find me at the midway point of a trip to the US and Colombia. This is the first of a series of journeys to try and find the reality behind the PR image of the world’s most famous brand, Coca-Cola. Quite why I set myself this task needs some explanation and to fully understand you need to grasp one fact: I have been a paid egotist all my working life. I started out as a comedian in the mid-1980s in London. Back then you didn’t have to fuck a footballer or eat kangaroo penis on a reality show to appear on TV. No, back then any half-decent comic could get their own series on Channel 4, and being half-decent, I did. The shows ran from 1996-2002, 45 episodes over six series and a string of one-off documentaries. Some of the shows were crap, so bad I have not been able to watch them and I never will. Some of them were good and actually worked - the government tightened up tax laws on the back of two shows I did. A large company changed their policies and practices, some of the stories I covered made the front pages of the national press and Amnesty commended my work. By this stage my ego was robust enough to shield entire towns from most forms of attack (with the possible exception of kryptonite to which I have always been vulnerable). If I were to do a graph of my ego’s peaks and troughs you would find the high spikes of my vanity and self-belief coincided with the decision to take on Coca-Cola. At the pinnacle of my narcissistic faith in my abilities, a series of events conspired that led to me being here.
Back in 2001 I was writing a column for the New Statesman magazine, a left-of-centre weekly with circulation figures that were the envy of every other British left-wing journal. It is sold in many cities and was once spotted in a petrol station rack. It is a crotchety old rag that is owned by a New Labour millionaire, runs adverts for the arms dealers BAE Systems and gives out Tesco gift vouchers as prizes for its competitions, but somehow it manages to host really good columnists from John Pilger to Shazia Mirza. I loved working for it and after one column was left a message from a chap called Professor Eric Herring, offering to help me by providing academic research and data. After the initial shock of realising that some academics have social skills and can conduct a conversation without the need for footnotes and peer review, a world of wonderfully brainy folk opened up to me. It is not that the academic world is closed to outsiders it is just insular, very insular. So it is essential to have a guide through this world, someone like Professor Eric Herring. If he was unable to help with an issue he would invariably pass me on to another academic who could. It was like Mensa meets the Masons but without the aprons and David Icke pointing the finger
One day Professor Eric Herring left a message saying, ‘Really good column, nice analysis but you need up-to-date examples, you need to talk to Doug, one of my research students. He’ll tell you about Colombia.’ And what he told me about Colombia was the shocking figures and facts about the number of trade union organisers and leaders killed by paramilitary death squads. Thousands killed for the audacity of challenging sackings, wage cuts, intimidation, coercion to work longer hours, unsafe conditions and trying to halt the wave of casualised jobs - temporary jobs with no security or protection - that has swept over Colombia.
As one of the academics was connected to the Colombia Solidarity Campaign it was only a matter of time before I came into contact with them and their campaign on Coca-Cola, as trade union leaders working for the Coke bottlers had been killed by death squads: one of those was killed inside the bottling plant.
Misfortunes seemed to rain upon the Company around this time. Coca-Cola were getting some considerable attention on the issue of obesity from the Parliamentary Select Committee on Health2 and the story of Plachimada in Kerala hit the international airwaves after the Coca-Cola bottlers there faced massive protests accusing the Company of exploiting the communal water resources. So depleted was the water supply that the Company was forced to bus in two tankers of water a day for the villagers.3
Then one afternoon I was talking to the man who used to produce my TV work, Geoff Atkinson. He is a quirky British chap, a large man with curly blond hair and a habit of wiggling his thumbs to signify excitement and contentment. In effect he has shrugged off years of evolution and relegated his prehensile thumb to the role of a dog’s tail. Geoff was drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola and as we started to discuss New Labour I had pointed at the bottle and said , ‘That is New Labour. Good packaging, lots of sugar and otherwise worthless.’ Half an hour later I had formalised my obsession with the Company. There followed two months of internet trawls, late-night phone calls to anyone who was still awake and long meetings with non-governmental organisations and journalists, all of which culminated at the start of 2004 with me standing outside the Coke bottling plant in Southern India clutching a borrowed camera from Geoff pondering the subjects of globalisation, democracy, and wet wipes.
Over the next year I wrote and toured a stage show about the company, had numerous columns about Coke in the New Statesman (to the extent of the editor telling me ‘You really can’t do them three weeks running’) and I co-curated an exhibition, with artist and friend Tracey Moberly, that invited anyone to submit drawings, pictures and Photoshopped images mocking the company’s adverts.
All of us have psychological ticks and mine is that I find enemies easier to work with than friends. Broadly speaking you know where you are with an enemy and there is always the faint possibility of redemption; friends are altogether more complex and require much more attention. In the voyeuristic car-crash TV world of agony aunts and life coaches we are often told of the value of ‘moving on’, of walking away from trouble and getting on with our lives. But there is little joy to be had in avoiding trouble and people who don’t bear grudges frankly have not got the emotional stamina for the job.
Friends who still wanted to speak to me asked, ‘Why Coca-Cola, why are you going after them?’ And the answer I most frequently gave was that The Coca-Cola Company is a relatively small company that makes syrup - they don’t actually make much pop themselves. They franchise out the pop production, getting other companies to make it. Admittedly they own some of those companies, they have major shareholdings in others and some are what are called ‘independent bottlers’ -but they are all franchisees. They operate under what the company calls ‘the Coca-Cola system’. The Coca-Cola Company (or TCCC) controls who gets the franchise, they control the distribution of concentrate (the syrup with which to make Coke), the production method, the packaging and they even coordinate marketing and advertising with the local bottlers. They have an enormous level of control over the bottlers yet will often claim they have no legal or moral responsibility for the actions of their bottlers if it involves labour rights or environmental abuses.
The one thing The Coca-Cola Company does have is a whopping great enormous brand and that is what they sell. Coke epitomises globalisation: a transnational worth billions that actually produces very little and yet is known the world over.
And that is truly part of the reason. But it is not the whole answer. There are two other reasons why I wanted to look at Coca-Cola and the first is simple: I don’t like Pepsi. I never have and I never will. Coca-Cola is what I used to drink every day and, like many everyday things, I never really questioned it. In a similar way, I look at my watch but I have never wondered who first quantified units of time. Then one day sitting with Geoff I just looked at the bottle and thought, ‘What actually is it I am drinking?’ And I wasn’t looking at just the physical ingredients, but the ingredients of the brand and the company. Like many, I did not buy South Africa goods while Mandela was jailed, as they were contaminated by the apartheid system; so what battles were going on in a bottle of Coke? I just wanted to know - and considering that every year they spend billions of dollars on advertising, I reckon a few of those dollars were spent on me. As far as I’m concerned they came after my custom, so they started it.
The first reason is specific to me; the second is global. When George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest he said ‘Because it’s there.’ Why do I want to write about Coke? ‘Because it’s everywhere.’ You can’t escape it.
And sitting here in Atlanta airport the impact of that statement was just beginning to hit me. The gulf between self-image and reality can be an ego-crushing chasm. I like to think I have a competent grasp of the basic concepts of globalisation, human rights and social movements, but realistically I know on a bad day I’m about as incisive and cutting as a Haribo.
Like most big-heads I believe my abilities to be greater than they are, but even I have moments of clarity. This morning I visited the Coke museum which is a testimony to the Company’s history and its advertising blitzkriegs, and as I look around I realise I am witnessing a skirmish in one of those battles right now. In the immediate vicinity of my seat in the the airport lounge is a man-sized Coca-Cola fridge packed with Company products, an authentic Mexican diner serving drinks in Coke glasses, a massive Coca-Cola vending machine, a bottle of Coke sticking out of a seven-year-old’s rucksack, a 30-something in a Coca-Cola T-shirt and numerous bottles of Dasani, Coca-Cola’s brand of bottled water, being slurped by a school sports team that have arrived in tracksuits. Leaning back on the seat I can capture this entire scene within my field of vision. I am the odd one out, the exception to the Coke-drinking norm.
Coca-Cola is the biggest brand in the world, they have a greater global reach than a flu virus, they have lawyers who excrete spare IQ points and I am a dad sitting in an airport holding a teddy bear and an asthma inhaler muttering, ‘Oh God, what have I done…’
THE HAPPINESS FACTORY
‘Coke is like a little bottle of sparkle-dust.’
Inside the Happiness Factory, The Coca-Cola Company ‘documentary’
Everyone tells stories and a good story is a sleight of hand, distracting where needs be and discerning in its revelations. But the craftiest storytellers can tell you a tale without you realising it’s being told. They are called advertisers - though some prefer the word ‘twat’. Every product they sell has a tale to tell and an audience in mind to tell it to. They can tell a story with a phrase, a picture and sometimes with a single pencil line. Without them transnationals would become extinct because in order to sell they have to tell stories. They have to tell them to survive. Without adverts, brands do not exist and without brands modern corporations crumble.
No company spends money unless they feel it is for their financial benefit, so consider the estimated total global advertising budget for 2008: it is US$665 billion1, or to use its technical term a ‘gazillion’. With that amount of money you could run the UN and its entire operations for 33 years2. Or you could finance a totally new ‘War on Terror’3: the US could invade North Korea and Cuba and still have change for a fair crack at France. For lovers of traditional forms of statistical comparison, the global advertising budget is Liberia’s GDP for 600 years4.
In the battle of the brands Coca-Cola are king. In 2007 news spread across the globe’s financial networks that for the sixth year in a row Coca-Cola had been ranked as the world’s top brand, beating well-known competition from Microsoft, McDonald’s, Disney, IBM and Nokia to the title5. Business Week/Interbrand annual ratings and its evaluations are based on a distinct criteria: the belief that brands can be intangible assets, ie, something that doesn’t physically exist yet can nonetheless have a financial worth. The value of a brand is calculated through surveys, which essentially measure the goodwill felt towards a company. Now I’m not an expert on high finance but the day that the trader or banker came up with the idea that you could put a price on…er…nothing tangible - well, that day must have ended very late at night with a taxi driver helping them to the front door.
Interbrand valued the Coca-Cola brand at $65.324 billion, which is a lot of goodwill. And the company must fight for every penny of it. For take away the brand, the image, the red and white colours and iconic script, take away the shape of the bottle, the advertising, the polar bears, the lights in Times Square, the Santa ads at Christmas, the Superbowl commercials, the sponsorship of the Olympics and football leagues, take all that away and you are left with the product: brown fizzy sugar water. And brown fizzy sugar water with no packaging, no logo and no built-in aspirations concocted in advertising land is not something any of us really need. Asa Chandler, Coke’s first proprietor, knew this and set to conquering the world with a simple philosophy: advertise everywhere and make sure the drink is always available.
But there is one crucial thing about storytelling, as any narrator knows: the details that are left out of a story are as important as those that are left in. I am about to be reminded of this as I head for the World of Coca-Cola, a smooth silver building, with metal curves and a gleaming tower, half-corporate HQ, half-Bond-villain lair. It is essentially the Coke museum, the repository of the official Coke story, but this corporate autobiography leaves out some of the more uncomfortable truths.
The morning is cheerfully cold, a lovely Southern winter’s day in Atlanta; the sun makes not one bit of difference to the temperature but it shines bright across the clear blue sky. A few police officers stand around Pemberton Park in the city centre, coats zipped up and wearing hats with earmuffs that dangle down each side of their heads, gently reducing them from figures of authority to parodies of Elmer Fudd. They drink coffee, smile and nod as I wander past. This is the entrance to The World of Coca-Cola and somewhere discreet loudspeakers are playing Coke’s most memorable advertising jingle, ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’.6 Which may explain the earmuffs.
I like to think the company plays this song as a hymn of thanks to the Atlanta Development Authority who gave them $5.4 million to help pay for the park landscaping and the entrance plaza,7 or the City Council who scrapped $1.5 million worth of sales tax for the company,8 or indeed the property tax worth $2 million that the Atlanta city fathers decided they didn’t want Coca-Cola to pay.9 Coke might be worth billions but they are not averse to sticking out their hand for loose change, especially when the loose change has six noughts at the end of it.
In pride of place in the state-subsidised Pemberton Park stands a six-foot four-inch bronze statue of the area’s namesake, the founding father of Coca-Cola, pharmacist John Pemberton. Officially he created the drink in 1886 and sold it from Jacob’s pharmacy;10 now, over 120 years later, his noble image stands facing the park, one hand on a small Victorian table at his side. In his other hand he holds up a glass of Coca-Cola, partly in celebration, partly inspecting it, his impassive face considering his drink and offering it out to the world. It is the image of a pioneer, a scientist hero and benefactor to humanity. Sir Alexander Fleming wouldn’t have minded having a statue like this and he discovered penicillin. The statue portrays Pemberton as thinner than the photos I have seen of him, where he looks a tad chubby. This apparently is not the only factual discrepancy. According to Mark Pendergrast, one of the most respected authors on the company, John Pemberton returned from the American civil war addicted to morphine.11 So Coca-Cola’s founder was a chunkie junkie, though in fairness, who would erect a statue of a fat druggie outside a family tourist attraction - with the exception of the Elvis Presley estate?
So for the greater good of the corporate image ol’ morphine Pemberton loses a few pounds and gets clean. And inside the historical revisionism continues; bizarrely there is no mention of one of the drink’s original ingredients, cocaine, which with hindsight is hardly the greatest sin, as there were other beverages of the late nineteenth century that contained varying quantities of Colombia’s most famous export. Admittedly it’s a slightly messy fact: one minute you want to teach the world to sing, the next you want to teach the world to talk really quickly and rub its gums with an index finger.
It is these ‘messy facts’ that the Company seem to have an almost pathological desire to try and hide. They are deviations in the Company narrative, grit in the PR grease. And Coca-Cola do not like grit in the grease.
- On Sale
- Jun 2, 2009
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Bold Type Books