By Rodger Brown
Vol. 14, No. 4, 1992, pp. 21-26
I grew up on Coke, so when they built the World of Coca-Cola in 1990, I knew that sooner or later I had to pay a visit. It was not something I wanted to do, but I felt compelled. The gallons of Coke I had drunk during my life at the movies, at McDonald’s, and during Thanksgiving dinners, had somehow magnetized me. I was drawn to the place. At the same time that I felt attracted to the World of Coca-Cola, I was also repulsed. Through the 1980s I had associated Coke with apartheid in South Africa, thanks to a very visible boycott campaign. And Coke’s global ubiquity represented, to me, a kind of cultural denaturing, where the once-profound concepts of life, refreshment, joy and reality were rendered into a carbonated solution and sold by the bottle. Recently, with a notebook in one hand and my ambivalence in the other, I made my pilgrimage.
The World of Coca-Cola is located in a $15 million Lego-postmodern funhouse on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. near Underground in downtown Atlanta. It is described in a brochure as a “tribute” to a “unique product and the consumers who have made it the world’s favorite soft drink.” But there are more facets to Cokeworld than its function as a shrine. It is part company museum, corporate theme park, and Willy Wonka dream factory: where Wonka’s place has rivers that run chocolate and gum that tastes like a whole meal, Cokeworld has geysers that flow with free soda and a version of history that equates the success of Coke with the triumph of democracy.
Also like Willy Wonka’s fantastic chocolate factory, Cokeworld is full of hi-tech rube goldbergs.The first one is the Lasergate, the turnstile on the ground floor. When I went to Cokeworld, I bought a ticket for $2.50 at the front desk. I was directed to the elevator, but first had to pass through the Lasergate. A blinking red message on the Lasergate instructed me to lay my ticket under the laser scanner. I heard a click and went on through the turnstile.
But it was an illusion. I was waiting for the elevator to take me to the third floor, where my adventure was to
begin, when three older women approached the Lasergate and stood puzzled, trying to read the fast-blinking message. When it looked as though they couldn’t decipher it, a red-sweatered monitor told them to just go on through. The Lasergate was not locked. The whole procedure was unneccessary. The ticket, the laser scanner, and the turnstile are all parts of a ritual of privileged entry, a gesture that we have crossed the threshold from the everyday world to a sacred one.
The sacred nature of Cokeworld is declared by a gargantuan Coke bottle cut-out painted by Georgia folk artist the Rev. Howard Finster, Man of Visions, which hangs by the Lasergate. Rev. Finster instructs us in his scrawled message across the bottom, speaking of salvation but implying the World of Coca-Cola: “….Wake up your soul and be made whole. Go right in Gods great fold. Everything Free, not bought or sold. You need no money the streets are gold, as I get told.”
In his work, Finster often links cold Coca-Cola with Heaven and defines Hell as a place where there “ain’t no cold Coke.” But in his last phrase “as I get told” he reveals that our belief in the perfect Cokeworld is based on faith and the syrupy rhetorical magic of advertising; and as we pass the Lasergate and ride the elevator to the top, we are encouraged to set aside skepticism and for an hour accept Cokeworld’s bogus abolition of private property (“Everything Free, not bought or sold.”
In the 1950s, Robert Woodruff, the late philanthropist and head of the Coca-Cola Company, called Coke the “essence” of capitalism. He was referring to the fact that everyone involved with the product, from the bottlers to the vendors, made easy profits. But there is another sense in which Coke is the essence, or the syrup concentrate, of capitalism, and that is in its advertising. Throughout its corporate history, Coke advertising has been in the avant-garde of advertising strategies in order to stimulate greater levels of consumption. This history of spiritual and alchemical conjuration is on display at The World of Coca-Cola.
The first encounter at the top of the World of Coca-Cola is with The Bottling Fantasy, a clanking, hissing, idealized bottling machine. On the Bottling Fantasy, bottles with labels from around the world travel in an unstoppable loop, endlessly being filled and emptied and filled again. The effect intended is mythical. Here the production of the elixir is continuous, unstoppable, eternal and global. The Bottling Fantasy is also a defining statement, a metaphor, revealing that Cokeworld is itself actually a gigantic simulated bottling plant: the lore and legend of Coca-Cola equals the syrup and soda water—and we, the visitors, are the bottles.
Once past the Bottling Fantasy, I begin to play my role as bottle. I am filled with Cokeworld’s brew of nostalgic advertising and sanitized, selective corporate history. While I am being glutted with the overwhelming load of familiar Coke images, I realize a curious shift has taken place. All this stuff, this detritus from ad campaigns of the past, was once presented free of charge to entice me, us, others, to drink Coke. But now I pay money to see it. The ads and promotional items have become magical entertainment, and for the admission price I can experience a comfortable feeling of nostalgic displacement; I can enter into the untroubled, idyllic dreamscape of Cokeworld, where all the cheeks are ruddy, every day is a day off, and every Coke a mini-vacation.
Even in the carefully stitched fabric of Coke’s selective history, if I look closely, I can spot the seams, the patched-over stains. I can’t blame the conjurers of Cokeworld for presenting a selective version of the origin and evolution of Coke through these past 100-plus years since that first 1886 batch was brewed there in Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta. After all, you can’t expect to parade thousands of school children past displays of boiling coca leaves. While the one-time cocaine content of Coca-Cola is the company’s most notorious non-secret, there is no display in Cokeworld about it. But you can’t miss the references to the invigorating effects of “coke” when looking at the early promotional materials. Tucked in the middle of one display case is the very first ad for Coca-Cola which appeared in the Atlanta Journal in May 1886. It reads “The New and Popular Soda Fountain Drink, containing the properties of the wonderful Coca plant and the famous Cola nuts.”
I also see an 1898 copy of the promotional Coca-Cola News which featured a Poet Laureate’s Corner, where bottlers penned paeans to Coke syrup. One submission, “Specially written from the heart—by one who KNOWS that Coca-Cola is all, and MORE than is claimed for it,” is rife with the language of dope and addiction:
Happy Happy those who find
One that body tones and mind.
Stronger! stronger! grow they all
Who for Coca-Cola call.
Brighter! brighter! thinkers think
When they Coca-Cola drink.
Even with the coca derivative long-since replaced by increased caffeine content, I can’t help but think of Coca-Cola as a gigantic drug cartel.
By the time the coca derivatives were removed around the turn of the century, the Coca-Cola logo decorated 2.5 million square feet of American building facades, and 10,000 in Cuba and Canada, according to the Coca-Cola company. They were spending half a million dollars on advertising. Those sums quickly increased, and it was up to caffeine and such chubby, cherubic sex symbols of the era as Hilda Clark to take over the stimulant duties of the coca dope.
Just as I can’t really blame Coke for not wanting to trumpet the original cocaine content, I also can’t blame them for downplaying the fact that for its first 15 years or so, the drink was marketed as a “remarkable therapeutic agent,” a cure for headaches, melancholy, insomnia and hysteria. The narrative of Coke’s history presented in Cokeworld mentions that Coca-Cola was just one of a number of patent medicines brewed by “Doctor” Pemberton, such as Botanic Blood Balm and Triplex Liver Pills, but the beverage’s scruffy relations are quickly laughed aside. To me, however, this is an important point for understanding how Coke and Coke’s advertising continues to operate today.
The heritage of Coca-Cola (which was originally green) as a patent medicine places it firmly in the tradition of the Medicine Show, where some liquid concoction, some snake oil, some dope is sold to the public with the promise that along with its consumption will come all sorts of desired benefits. Originally, Coca-Cola promised relief for head-
ache and fatigue. Today the product promises, along with life and joy, world peace. Coke itself is used as advertisement for a certain social and cultural attitude, a sort of liberal pluralism and internationalism based not on a shared mother tongue, class consciousness, or code of human rights, but a common taste for the same brand of pop, uniting us all in a vast international cargo cult: The World of Coca-Cola!
All this becomes clear to me as I notice that Coke ads and Coke history fizz with more than entertainment value. They are the dominant motifs in Cokeworld’s presentation of American, and international, social history.
Once I leave the first gallery, guided by the helpful and ebullient red-sweatered monitors, I experience yet another of Cokeworld’s ironic confessions of intent. There on the atrium bridge, I can, as the tour booklet instructs, “step inside a giant Coca-Cola can,” touch the video screen and activate a videodisc that plays selected snippets of America’s past. These snippets summarize the social history of a period, “interwoven with the history of Coca-Cola and The Coca-Cola Company.”
So grandiose is Coke’s self-image that the company does not settle for celebrating its success with mere numbers. There are, of course, plenty of novelty stats: 700,000 Coke vending machines in Japan! All the bottles ever made stacked side by side on a fourlane would wrap around the earth 81 times! But Coke’s boldest boast is its victory as a cultural icon that transcends history, equalizes class distinctions, vaporizes national boundaries, and unites all time, space, and life in a multidimensional Pax Coca-Cola.
Cokeworld’s “History in a Can” makes of politics a dance of trends, a smooth, sweet evolution of changing clothing styles and a progressive perfection of society toward the ideal Soda Fountain on the Hill. Using clever trivia, quick cuts of archival film footage and diverse, effective soundtrack, the video nuggets can history, presenting profound moments in history and equate them with developments in the alternate ever-happy unreality of Cokeworld. The effect is insidious: historical information is simplified, flattened and neutralized. As I gulp down these “Logo”-centric lessons, fascinated with the touch-screen videodisc technology, I occupy a stereotypical postmodern landscape of desire, where issues of power are suppressed, and entertainment is celebrated.
In “The New Woman,” for example, I learn that the amount of material used to make a woman’s outfit shrank from 19 1/4 yards to seven yards in 15 years, that in the 1920s women were filling new jobs, and that Coca-Cola developed the six-pack that was just perfect for those new home ice-boxes.
In “Hard Times” I’m told that in the 1930s millions were unemployed, movies became popular, and Coca-Cola advertising reflected that ol’ irrepressible human spirit
In “Festival of Dreams” I learn that immigrants by the millions came to America, and their dreams helped “weave that deeply textured tapestry we call the American expe-
rience.” I also learn that, “These were days when the Coca-Cola company was having its own share of dreams come true…” Among those Cokedreams-come-true was the setting up of bottling plants in Nicaragua. (The U.S. Marines, in this version, don’t exist.)
And finally, in canned history lesson called “The Stopwatch and The Factory,” I hear about Henry Ford, Frederick Taylor, the assembly line, “the tyranny of the clock,” and the improved working conditions brought about by unexplained and long-finished “labor struggles.” But most important, this was when the trademark hobbleskirt bottle was introduced. The bottle is described with a phrase that is tossed off by the narrator, but which captures the essential contradictory dream logic of Cokeworld’s sacral profanity: “It was mass produced uniqueness.” While Coca-Cola’s own marketing efforts did much to spread Coke throughout the world, it was World War II that catapulted Coke into a position of global prominence, and made it a standard of democracy equal to, if not greater than, the Stars and Stripes. During the war, Robert Woodruff, the legendary head of Coke during the company’s global march, quickly found a way to get unlimited supplies of tightly rationed sugar by making Coca-Cola for the GI’s. According to a series of articles in The New Yorker in February and March of 1959, Woodruff convinced the U.S. military and the soldiers themselves that Coca-Cola was a symbol of all the sunny Saturday afternoons and dates at the soda fountain that they were fighting for. To the soldiers and the world, Coca-Cola soon became not just a symbol of the essence of American privilege and leisure, but also the magic elixir without which that leisure didn’t even exist.
The writer of The New Yorker articles, E.J. Kahn, reported that Woodruff persuaded the government that Coca-Cola bottling plants were a necessary part of an army’s hardware.
Woodruff was so successful that when General Eisenhower landed on North Africa, he ordered eight bottling plants shipped in to provide Cokes for his desert armies. And at the time of Japan’s surrender, six bottling plants were included with the first wave of American occupational troops. Before WW II there were five bottling plants overseas. By the end of the war, there were 64! And most of them were shipped there at government expense. This wartime trend gave Coke an almost unbeatable edge over any competition. Coke was such a part of the war effort that when the fighting was over, 30,000 empty coke bottles were recovered from the lagoon of one pacific island alone.
A few short years after V-E Day, European communists were decrying “Coca-Colonialism.” Critics described the drink as “halfway between the sweetish taste of coconut and the taste of a damp rag for cleaning floors.” Another equated it to “sucking the leg of a recently massaged athlete.” French wine makers forced passage of an anti-soda pop law to prevent Coke’s widespread distribution. This action caused one Georgia representative to announce that he and friends were swearing off French dressing.
The European opponents of Coca-Cola stood no chance. Coke won. And the Black Gold from the South continues to flow, an unstoppable gusher: if the amount of Coke already drunk were to flow from Old Faithful at that geyser’s current rate, it would spew for 1,577 years.
One trace of Coke’s military legacy on display at the World of Coca-Cola is a small but enormously telling mention that at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Coke products provided at the event were delivered on a refurbished military landing craft.
The international popularity of Coca-Cola is perhaps the most significant justifying factor for the hybrid museum/amusement park/reeducation camp that is Cokeworld. This international character is trumpeted in the movie “Every Day of Your Life,” a 13-minute hallucination in which “the world comes into focus,” where the Wonderland through which we have just wandered is summarized and repeated at high bone-buzzing volume. In the movie, one of the current chief Cokeheads, Don
Keough, appears on screen with all the full-face High-Definition avuncular terror of something produced in Oz.
Keough begins by repeating Rev. Finster’s original false promise that Heaven/Cokeworld transcends the ugly reality of money, property, and power: “You know, in the final analysis, Coca-Cola doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to you, to anyone and everyone who has ever shared a moment with a Coke.” Keough then spins out more of the illusory rhetoric about the extended family of pop that has been the theme throughout Cokeworld. “Coca-Cola is so natural to the different cultures and lifestyles in nearly 170 countries around the world. Everyday more than a million people earn their livelihood from Coca-Cola …. the largest production and distribution network in the world.”
During the film, we take a trip around Cokeworld on the back of a Coke delivery truck. We pass Arabs on camels, Kenyans in the highlands, Thai in Bangkok and Japanese at faux-rock concerts, all with a ready wave for the happy Coke delivery men. The music is equally as diverse as the cast of characters, ranging from opera, to rock, soft pop, jazz and generic-ethnic. Coke’s abduction of diversity 20 years ago (remember “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”?) has since inspired many other ad campaigns (most recently the United Colors of Benetton), but no other product, except, perhaps, Michael Jackson, can yet claim real success equal to Coke’s.
In “Every Day of Your Life,” the religious significance of Coke as a sort of quintessential primordial ooze is highlighted in a thunderous, cacophonous segment where the image on screen show workers silk-screening the words “Coca-Cola” onto crates, while a dramatic rhythmic drone pounds through the StereoSurround system with a chorus chanting “Life!” It is as though we are witnessing creation itself in the birth of the Logo(s).
This gesture of appropriating Life itself is Coke’s ultimate act of hubris. Over the past few decades Coke copywriters have successfully usyruped the language of spirituality, carefully exploiting all the nuances of the metaphor of “thirst,” and claiming for Coke all that some claim for religion: the quenching source of joy, rebirth, happiness, satisfaction, and life. The language of Coke’s advertising resonates with evangelical imagery and even includes an esoteric mystery sect of those who know the magic formula. “Only one real Coke flavor,” declares the Rev. Finster.
It is at the end of my tour through the World of Coca-Cola that the image of us visitors as bottles in a bottling plant is made literal. As the movie “Every Day of Your Life” ends, Mr. Keough invites us to have a Coke, on him. I leave the theater and enter Club Coca-Cola, where I’m offered the entire variety of Coke products, as much as I can stomach. Here is a rare treat: in the “Tastes of the World” I can sample soft drinks “not available in the U.S.” In Club Coca-Cola, the cultural diversity of the world is once again transmuted into a simple diversity of flavors. School kids dash from spigot to spigot shouting, “Come here and taste Thailand! Did you try Japan?”
But it’s not over yet. I go down from Club Coca-Cola, wiping my chin and marvelling over some of the supersweet brews drunk overseas, into the Trademart. This is the last stop in the grand bottling fantasy: here I have the Coca-Cola logo applied to me on a cap, sweatshirt or T-shirt
Once again, the reversal that led me to pay to see old Coke advertisements and to be bottled with Coke’s messages, now would have me paying money for copies of the logo, so that true to the song that is echoing in my head as I leave Cokeworld (rather, exit from one Coke dimension into another-I can never leave the world of Coca-Cola), that refreshing beverage and its sanctifying imprint can accompany me everywhere, every day of my life.
Rodger Brown is author of Party Out of Bounds: The B-52s, R.E.M. and the Kids Who Rocked Athens, Ga.