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For God, Country & Coca-Cola

Interview with Mark Pendergrast, Author, For God, Country & Coca-Cola

LitVote:  In your book, you talk about the inventor of Coca-Cola. What motivated him?

Mark: John Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist and patent medicine man, first came up with French Wine Coca, a wine with an infusion of coca leaf — i.e., it combined alcohol and cocaine.  It was one of many imitations of then-famous Vin Mariani.  When Atlanta voted to go dry, Pemberton modified his drink, taking out the alcohol, leaving the coca leaf extract, and adding caffeine, various essential oils from ingredients like coriander, cassia, and nutmeg, and a lot of sugar.  The result, first served in May of 1886 — Coca-Cola.  By the way, Pemberton was a scholar who waxed eloquent about the virtues of the coca leaf, which he thought could cure morphine addition.  Pemberton was himself a morphine addict.

LitVote: Do you have incontrovertible proof that Coca-Cola once contained cocaine?

Mark: Absolutely!  Although if you go to the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, the guides (called “Coca-Cola ambassadors”) will deny it.  Why do you suppose its called Coca-Cola?  It’s named for its two principal drug sources — coca leaf (cocaine) and kola nut (caffeine).  In this new edition, I include a facsimile copy of a version of the original Coca-Cola formula in Frank Robinson’s handwriting.  Robinson is the unsung hero of Coca-Cola, who named the drink, wrote out the famous script, manufactured it and advertised it in the early years.  The formula contains F. E. Coca, fluid extract of coca leaf.  Asa Candler, who took over the drink after Pemberton’s death in 1888, openly talked about his drink’s cocaine content to a reporter in 1891 and in subsequent courtroom testimony.  Coca-Cola is still made using fluid extract of coca leaf, but it has been decocainized since 1903.  In the 1930s, Coca-Cola “Boss” Robert Woodruff flew to Peru to set up a plant there to decocainize coca leaf, but he managed to get U. S. laws passed to allow the process to continue in Maywood, New Jersey.

LitVote:  You’ve got two versions of Coca-Cola’s original formula in your book.  How in the world did you manage that?

Mark:  I tell the story and reveal the ingredients in an appendix called “The Sacred Formula.”  Amazingly, I found the formula inside the company’s archives in John Pemberton’s recipe book, but it wasn’t labeled Coca-Cola.  It had a giant X on top.  Then Frank Robinson’s great-granddaughter gave me a facsimile copy of Robinson’s recipe — very similar, but not quite the same.  I worried it might hurt the company in some way, but I quote a revealing exchange with a Coke spokesman who explained that the formula itself doesn’t matter — it’s the brand equity and the distribution system, which can’t be duplicated.

LitVote:  You say that Coca-Cola was controversial in its early years.  Can you explain?

Mark: During the racist Jim Crow era, rumors flew that African Americans were getting high on Coca-Cola’s cocaine and raping white women, which is one of the major reasons the company took out the cocaine.  That didn’t stop the U. S. government from suing Coca-Cola in 1911 over its caffeine content in a drink advertised to children.  The drink was banned on army bases and barely survived.  It had a sinful appeal, still called “dope” throughout the South during the Depression years.

LitVote: How did Coca-Cola become such a symbol of the American way of life, then?

Mark: Relentless, clever advertising.  When Robert Woodruff took over in 1923, he put a stop to defensive advertising.  Coca-Cola was positioned as “the pause that refreshes,” a wholesome part of everyday life.  During World War II, Coca-Cola was exempted from sugar rationing as an “essential morale booster” for the troops, and, at government expense, Coke employees set up 64 bottling plants behind the lines, positioning the company for world domination in the post-war world.

LitVote: But you’ve got a chapter about Coca-Cola inside Nazi Germany!

Mark: Yes, I found it ironic and amazing that Coca-Cola was doing very well inside Nazi Germany, where the swastika was displayed right next to the Coca-Cola logo at company meetings.  When Coke syrup was no longer available after Pearl Harbor, the German company invented Fanta.  Not many people realize that Fanta originated as a Nazi drink.

LitVote: After World War II, was it easy for Coca-Cola to expand internationally?

Mark: No, it was very controversial in many places, especially in France, where it was perceived as an American threat to French wine, and where the Communists treated it as a toxic symbol of American imperialism, spreading rumors that it turned hair white overnight and made people impotent.  But Coca-Cola persevered.

LitVote:  Let’s talk about some of Coca-Cola’s most beloved television spots.

Mark: There are two iconic ads, although I talk about so many others in the book.  In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War protests, Coca-Cola struggled to appeal to hawks and doves, traditionalists and hippies.  The company came up with the Hilltop Commercial, putting young people from around the world on a hilltop in Italy, each clasping a Coca-Cola like a religious object, and earnestly singing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”  It was brilliant, conveying the message that if only everyone drank Coca-Cola, the world would be at peace and everyone would get along.

The other commercial, launched in 1979, featured Mean Joe Greene, a wounded black football player limping down a stadium tunnel towards the locker rooms.  A shy, moon-faced boy holding a Coke called to him and offered him the drink.  Greene took it and upended it in one glorious chug, as music swelled for “Have a Coke and a Smile.”  Greene then threw his sweaty jersey to the ecstatic kid.

LitVote:  Let’s skip to modern times.  What about Coca-Cola and the obesity epidemic?

Mark: Soft drink sales peaked in the United States in 1998 and have been in a slow decline since then, in large measure because Coca-Cola is being held responsible for the obesity epidemic that is causing huge health costs and mortality.  Indeed, sugary beverage consumption is a major contributor, though junk food and sedentary lifestyles are part of the problem.  My book documents how Coca-Cola has adjusted, forced to remove its sugary drinks from schools, and it has diversified into bottled water, juices, and drinks with healthy images such as Vitaminwater.  It also created Coke Zero, a no-calorie drink aimed at men.  In a recent ad called “Coming Together,” touting its part in coping with the obesity epidemic, The Coca-Cola Company acknowledges that its sugary beverages are part of the problem but points out, “If you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.”  It concludes that “the well-being of our families and communities concerns everyone, and finding a solution will take continued effort from all of us.” The ad points out that a quarter of Coke’s beverages are now low- or no-calorie.  That said, sugary soft drinks are indeed a big part of the problem, and Coke and Pepsi advertising continues to suggest that drinking them will make you happy, energetic, and sexy, etc.

LitVote: What about the recent spate of Coca-Cola CEOs and the problems they have encountered, in addition to obesity?

Mark: Robert Goizueta, a Cuban-American, took the company to glorious new heights as the stock price soared.  But after he died of lung cancer in 1997, the company struggled under Doug Ivester, who inherited a worldwide economic slump and reacted too slowly to a health scare in Belgium that resulted in massive product recalls. He lasted only two years, but Doug Daft, who followed him, presided over a disastrous four years, during which a racial discrimination class action suit and FBI and SEC probes plagued the company.  Daft fired thousands, morale tanked.  Finally, the company brought Coke veteran Neville Isdell out of retirement to rejuvenate the company in 2004.  Isdell settled the lawsuits and probes, introduced Coke Zero and other products, and focused on do-good activities such as safe water and donations to the World Wildlife Fund.  He left the company in good shape in 2008, and current CEO Muhtar Kent has taken it to new heights.

LitVote:  What prompted you to write For God, Country & Coca-Cola?  Don’t you have some personal family connections to the drink?

Mark: I joke that the book is my revenge on my mother.  I grew up in Atlanta, where the drink was invented, its world headquarters still remain, and the World of Coca-Cola museum attracts a million visitors a year.  My mother wouldn’t let me drink Coca-Cola as a child, so I had to drink it at friends’ houses.  My grandfather, J. B. Pendergrast, was an Atlanta pharmacist who served Coca-Cola to Asa Candler.  I discovered to my delight during my research that J. B. testified in 1914 at an important trial about the nicknames people used to ask for Coca-Cola in his drugstore — Coke, Dope, a Shot-in-the-Arm, or Another Brick in the Candler Building.  My maternal grandmother was courted by Coke magnate Robert Woodruff, but she married my grandfather Robert Schwab instead.

LitVote:  Do you drink Coca-Cola?

Mark: There is nothing better after exercise on a hot summer day than a Coca-Cola with crushed ice, but I practice moderation, as others should.  Remember that a 12 ounce can of regular Coke contains the equivalent of 9 teaspoons of sugar.   I don’t drink many soft drinks, and I’m actually partial to Sprite when offered a choice on airplanes.

LitVote:  In your book, a Coke executive tells employees, “You have entered the lives of more people than any other product or ideology, including the Christian religion.”  After spending so much time exploring the world of Coca-Cola, how do you explain its appeal?

Mark: It took me over 500 pages to explain that, but the short answer is:  ubiquity and image, plus a unique product, of course.  Robert Woodruff used to say that Coca-Cola should always be “within an arm’s reach of desire,” and today it’s more like wrist’s reach.  Coke advertising, such as the current “Open Happiness” campaign, has associated the drink with good times, energy, and youth.  The drink is so deeply embedded in people’s lives that when New Coke came out in 1985, the entire country nearly had a nervous breakdown until Coke Classic returned.

LitVote:  Can you foresee any brand that might surpass Coca-Cola’s status?

Mark: Coca-Cola is the world’s most widely distributed single product, available (legally) in every country in the world except North Korea and Cuba.  It is the second best-known word on earth, after “OK.”  In the vast sweep of human history, Coca-Cola has not been around that long, and no one can predict far into the future.  But I do not foresee another brand becoming as iconic any time soon.

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