In the 20th century, there was a worldwide cultural debate on how people should live—under democracy, dictatorship, socialist regime, etc. By the end of the century, there was a wide global consensus that people are happiest when they’re free to choose what they want. Peculiarly, Coca-Cola represents this belief better than almost any single product.
Standage begins with his thesis: Coke represents the preeminence of American culture in the world today—for better or for worse. If Coke has an ideology behind it, it’s the belief that the best society is one that satisfies its people’s needs and desires.
Coke became a truly global product after World War II, at the same time that America was becoming a truly global power. In its earliest days, the U.S. had a policy of strict isolationism, but during World War II, partly in response to Japan’s attacks on American soil at Pearl Harbor, America became a staunchly global power, sending troops around the world. American troops also spread Coca-Cola around the world—indeed, every soldier was supplied with one bottle of Coke during the war, courtesy of the Coca-Cola company. Coke became such a popular part of the soldier’s experience that the American military asked Coca-Cola to send more soda to U.S. troops in Africa, Europe, and Asia. With the government’s help, Coca-Cola established bottling facilities at American military bases in other countries. Coke technicians at these facilities were regarded as important players in the American military—they were affectionately nicknamed “Coca-Cola colonels.” Many of the American military’s most important figures were fans of Coke.
In this fascinating section, Standage shows that Coca-Cola became a truly “American” product during World War II, when Coke was so supportive of the American military effort that it offered to supply every soldier with a bottle of their product. Of course, it’s likely that the Coca-Cola company only introduced this campaign because it suspected that the American government would reward it (which it did). At any rate, Coke’s success during the war resulted in its status around the world as an American beverage, and also as a symbol of American military might. Of course, this also means that it represented American imperialism and corrupt capitalism at its worst.
After World War II ended in 1945, Coca-Cola plants remained in Africa, Europe, and Asia, and became conventional, non-military facilities. As a result, ordinary people around the world tasted Coke for the first time. Because Coke had been an explicitly military drink during World War II, Coke was regarded as a symbol of American power for years afterwards. The Coca-Cola company, well aware of its product’s patriotic associations, launched a series of ad campaigns that emphasized Coke’s all-American qualities. As one Coke executive said, “when the world thinks of democracy, it thinks of Coca-Cola.”
The influence of Coca-Cola during the war was so great that after the end of World War II, Coca-Cola plants stayed in business. It may seem strange that a soda could come to stand for an entire country, but because Coke had been exported around the world and associated with the American military, it was one of the most visible symbols of America, and thus of American culture and values. The Coke executive’s statement, while obviously self-serving, has more than a grain of truth in it.
Because Coca-Cola became a universal symbol of America in the 1950s, it also became a symbol of everything people loved—and hated—about the U.S. In France, communist sympathizers referred to the Marshall Plan—the effort to rebuild Europe after World War II with large sums of American money—as “Coca-Colonization.” French hatred for Coke was so great that there was a widespread campaign in France to ban Coca-Cola. French protesters smashed Coke bottles to symbolize their opposition to the Marshall Plan, which they believed would lead to an influx not only of American money, but also of mediocre American culture and values. In other parts of Europe, communist sympathizers and opponents of American hegemony treated Coke like poison. There was a popular rumor in Italy that Coke could kill small children.
There have been many campaigns against Coca-Cola over the years, but few so clearly motivated by nationalistic sentiments as the one Italy launched against the drink after World War II. Coke became known as a symbol of American mediocrity and consumerism—an affront to the perceived sophistication and uniqueness of European culture. While these kinds of differences between European and American culture have been around for many centuries (think of the Americans who drank whiskey instead of decadent European wine), they came back with a vengeance after World War II, when America fully replaced Europe as the dominant global power.
Although Coca-Cola’s association with American power had been a great asset for the company in the 1940s and 50s, its association with the U.S. became a weakness in some ways during the 1960s. Because Coke was regarded as America’s drink, it was virtually impossible for the Coca-Cola company to open Coke facilities in the Soviet Union. Pepsi, Coke’s old rival, had a much easier time opening facilities in this part of the world, because its company hadn’t been tainted by associations with the U.S. In part because of its new presence in Eastern Europe, Pepsi eclipsed Coke as the world’s most popular soft drink in the 80s. However, Coke’s absence in the Soviet Union ultimately became an advantage. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s, Russia and its former satellite states embraced Coke with great vigor. By the mid-90s, Coke had become the world’s number one soft drink once again.
Coke faced a dilemma for most of the Cold War: although its association with America had shot it into the stratosphere, the company found that it couldn’t grow its business very much, since it had no way of entering the Soviet Union. It was for this reason that Pepsi began to eclipse Coke as the world’s favorite soda—however, this trend reversed after the Cold War, when Coke’s status as America’s soda once again became an advantage, not a weakness. All this shows how purely capitalistic Coke and Pepsi’s actions have been throughout history—they cared nothing for ideologies or ideals, but only for which political situation might bring them the most profit.
Coca-Cola’s strong associations with the U.S. also prevented it from spreading to the Middle East. Coke faced a dilemma in the Middle East: it could establish facilities in Israel or in the Arab world, but not both. In the 60s, Coca-Cola stayed out of Israel. It was suggested that Coke executives believed that Arab states would boycott Coke if they knew that the company did business with a Jewish state—in other words, critics argued, Coca-Cola was condoning anti-Semitism. In the 70s, however, Coca-Cola began selling its products in Israel, which in turn prompted the Arab nations of the Middle East to boycott Coke. Coke then resumed selling soda in Arab nations in the late 80s, when tensions between Arab nations and Israel had subsided somewhat.
The Coca-Cola company again pursued its cynical and amoral strategy in the Middle East: it stayed out of Israel only because it didn’t want to lose its Arab (and often anti-Semitic) customers. And yet, Coca-Cola’s actions became representative of how any major capitalist company would behave: it did what it could to increase its profits over time. For some time, then, this meant selling in Israel instead of the Arab world. Coke’s experience in the Middle East reiterates the connections between the beverage and American capitalism: at the end of the day, capitalism’s only goal is increasing profits.
To this day, Coke is a benchmark of America’s presence in foreign countries. Studies have shown that countries in which people drink more Coke have higher literacy rates and longer average life expectancies than countries in which people drink less Coke. This doesn’t prove that coke makes people smarter, of course—rather, it suggests that Coke is a staple of life in a liberal democracy, the form of government that has been shown to produce the greatest prosperity and freedom for its people. In conclusion, Standage argues that Coke is one of the most popular drinks on the planet, and—for better or worse—a symbol of American entrepreneurship and imperialism.
Standage ends his chapter with his usual mixture of modesty and boldness. It’s obvious that Coke doesn’t create health and intelligence, but Standage is willing to argue that Coke is so closely correlated with American culture and influence that wherever people drink Coke, there must be an strong American presence. Though this might mean a better economy, more human rights, and better education, it also might mean exploitation, corruption, and cultural oppression—just as Coke is sugary and delicious, but also incredibly unhealthy. In the end, Standage (as usual) refuses to say what he thinks of American global power, and lets us make up our own minds.