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.
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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.