This month, the New York Times reported that US President Donald Trump consumes a “dozen Diet Cokes” daily – often delivered by “household staff he summons via a button.”Who knows? Maybe overdosing on all-powerful US corporate brands will help the president “Make America Great Again”.
In the meantime, a Washington Post article has taken Trump’s Diet Coke habit and run with it, citing a recent study according to which “people who drank diet soda daily were three times more likely to develop stroke and dementia than those who consumed it weekly or less.”Also mentioned in the article is the possibility of weight gain owing to “artificial sweeteners [that] can confuse the brain and the body”. Suggestions of a correlation between soda consumption and deleterious health effects, including diabetes and heart disease, are, of course, nothing new – although Coca-Cola has in the past sought to distract public attention from the bad news by funding more industry-favourable narratives. To be sure, Coca-Cola is hardly the only culprit in a world so saturated with soft drinks, fast food and other counter-nutritional items that one often wonders how humans are even still alive. But as the Coca-Cola Company website boasts, Coke is the “most popular and biggest-selling soft drink in history”, with an estimated 1.9 billion beverages served globally every day. In other words, it’s a gigantic part of the problem.
Created in 1886, Coca-Cola is an almost universally recognised brand – with its red and white logo – and operates in more than 200 countries. Besides constituting an empire in its own right, Coke is thus able to serve another useful function: that of buttressing US imperialism.
In a 1993 dispatch for the New York Times on the phenomenon of “Coca-Colonisation”, Mark Pendergrast – author of the book For God, Country and Coca-Cola – provides some historical context for the imperial partnership.
Describing Coca-Cola as “capitalism’s flagship” and World War II as “a market blessing” of sorts, Pendergrast notes that the soft drink company “convinced the American military that Coca-Cola was an essential morale booster”. This resulted in an arrangement whereby “[company] men, decked out in military drab, flew overseas to install bottling plants behind the lines.” Indeed, in one of its many tributes to the US army, the Coca-Cola website celebrates the fact that “over 5 billion bottles of Coca-Cola” were distributed to US troops during that particular conflict. Who said war wasn’t good for business?
At other times in Coke’s history of seducing the world with fizzy brown liquid, the soda company effectively served to whitewash – or red-and-whitewash, if you will – the more overtly destructive facets of empire by disseminating messages of peace, joy, harmony, and other good stuff.
The astronomically and incomprehensibly popular 1971 commercial “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” for instance, features a multinational, multiracial hilltop crowd singing with moving and upbeat earnestness about how Coca-Cola is “what the world wants today”.
Yet it goes without saying that many global inhabitants at the time – such as the ones under devastating US bombardment in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – might have preferred something other than a Coke.
As for correcting other, misguided global preferences, Pendergrast writes in the Times that “when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, the Coca-Cola people were there. They were passing out free six-packs.”
Nowadays, it seems the former victims of socialism have been fully integrated into the realm of capitalist happiness. Driving through the post-Soviet republic of Georgia earlier this month, I was greeted by roadside shop-front banners celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Coca-Cola bottle. Meanwhile, despite the existence of a Coca-Cola PR machine that relentlessly churns out portrayals of the company as the most fabulously benevolent human-and-environment-loving company on the face of the planet, complications to the rosy picture continue to crop up from time to time. Consider the 2016 BBC News report titled “The Mexicans dying for a fizzy drink”, which emphasises the ubiquity of Coca-Cola, other sugary drinks, and junk food in a country where “[t]ype 2 diabetes… kills 70,000 per year.” Judging by my own, extensive stays in Mexico, it’s not uncommon to see poor families and individuals rely on Coca-Cola or similar products instead of water for ostensible hydration. Also illustrative is a September 2017 article in the British Independent, headlined “Coca-Cola sucking wells dry in indigenous Mexican town – forcing residents to buy bottled water”. Similar complaints have recurred in India – a nation that Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva has described as suffering from “colonisation … by Coca-Cola and McDonald’s”.
THE REAL THING?
In 2006, certain Indian states enacted bans against Coke and Pepsi, following allegations of high pesticide levels in soft drinks. More recently, a Coca-Cola bottling plant in northern India came under fire for allegedly depleting groundwater supplies and generating unacceptable levels of pollution.
Anyway, it appears such international quibbles are nothing a little intensified red-and-whitewashing can’t take care of.
And there’s no better time than the holiday season for Coca-Cola to work its advertising magic. After all, as the Coke website itself reminds us, “Coca-Cola helped shape the image of Santa” into the “big, jolly man in the red suit”, the one Americans “all know and love”.
To be sure, Christmas is a capitalist goldmine in terms of opportunities to manipulate emotions and exploit feelings of love, generosity, nostalgia, and anything else that might translate into profit.
And what do you know: Coca-Cola’s current slogan is “Taste the Feeling” – a global marketing strategy the company promised would “bring to life the idea that drinking a Coca-Cola – any Coca-Cola – is a simple pleasure that makes everyday moments more special”.
The reality, however, is more like that of Trump’s daily dozen: the only feeling you’re going to get is totally artificial.