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Triumph of the Swill
...in which the Cola Wars become a global conflict.
One of the great things about having out-of-town guests is it gives you an excuse to visit the local tourist traps, those glorified gift shops disguised as points of interest you wouldn’t otherwise go near. As a native, it would never occur to you to tour Alligator Town or the Warren G. Harding House or the National Finial Gallery or any other chamber of horror recommended by the Chamber of Commerce. But your visitors must be kept entertained, lest they spend their whole vacation watching you refill your ice trays, so there’s every chance you’ll find yourself having dinner at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company or looking for Puff Daddy on the Walk of Fame.
And so it was that I found myself a few years ago in the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia. The Heike, visiting me in the United States in a not-yet-my-wife capacity, wanted to have photos of this monolith of pure Americana for the benefit of her disbelieving friends back in Germany. And why not? She already had snapshots of the “1-800-DIVORCE” billboards and the giant, inflatable bullet outside the gun store. What better representation of America’s soul than a megachurch devoted to our most ubiquitous export, our biggest success in US global outreach since the Spanish-American War?
Having often wondered why any reasonable person would pay actual money to visit corporate-branded whorehouses like Disney World, Hershey Park, the Harley-Davidson Museum, or the Budweiser Brewery Experience, I got my answer when Heike asked to visit the World of Coca-Cola. We do it for love.
The Coca-Cola museum itself is an appropriately mid-century affair, an upchuck of Googie with a schmear of Epcot, the yard decorated with a giant, Oldenburgian bottlecap sculpture to commemorate Madison Avenue’s victory in the Pop Art Wars. As a tribute to commercial grandiosity, it’s an architectural overreach, meant to create the feeling that what’s being celebrated inside is something far more substantial than sugar water. Something bordering on mystical. The grandeur of the World of Coca-Cola must accurately reflect the enormity and eternal joy of Coke’s place in our culture, and indeed, in our very souls.
And my point in recounting all this is that I’m not quite sure that claim is entirely a lie. Consider that, on the first stop of our guided tour, the cracker barrel display of antique tin signs and Sundblom Santas collaged in a showroom window had me feeling comfortably republican, reminded of the retro-kitsch décor in every sandwich shop and ice cream parlor I’ve loitered in since birth. There’s a genuine hominess in being surrounded by Coke ads. It seems this soft drink, from its inception, has come packaged with a feeling of fond remembrance. It was invented to induce nostalgia, even with just the wave of its scripty logo. But the museum’s old-timey cabinet of Coke curios was only meant to soften us up for phase two of our journey.
We’re herded into a mini-cinema, with no visible exits. We’re unable to continue our exploration of the museum until we’ve received The Message. A gloriously loud propaganda film emerges on the screen, a director’s cut of every Coca-Cola promotional reel you came to the movies late hoping to avoid. The Message is that Coke has always been there and always will be. Wholesome images – “memories” – unfurl in slow motion to a bombastic musical score. Here's Coke at Ramona and Gertrude’s wedding (Coke is Woke, baby!). Here’s Coke at Aunt Trudy’s 90th birthday celebration. Here’s Coke to celebrate the new puppy, the new baby, the unveiling of the engagement ring on a hot air balloon. And here’s Coke – sniff – here’s Coke when Tommy – sniff – when Tommy comes home from Afghanistan* – sniff –
I’m sorry, I need a minute.
Schmalz aside, this heart-swelling display of Coca-Cola’s dictatorial intrusion into our lives isn’t wrong. The goddamn stuff really has been lurking in the shadows of our every life event because there has always been a bottle of Coke somewhere within five yards of us at all times. And to remind us of how they managed this total dominance of our cultural real estate, the cinema spectacle naturally includes a supercut of Coca-Cola’s endless waves of advertising, from drive-in snack bar pitches to hippies teaching the world to sing to testimonials from a wildly-popular TV comedian and rapist. Still the exits are sealed, Coke’s way of saying, “You’re not going anywhere without us.”
My adjustment to living in a foreign land has been completely predictable for we self-satisfied Americans. I spend a good 98% of my time not speaking or learning German, I avoid the tepid local news in favor of America’s 24-hour, death-spiral media feed, and I cling to the icons of American kitsch that keep me warm in a strange new country: My yellowing Master of Kung Fu comics, my YouTube stream of Barnaby Jones, and whatever American junk food I can still get my hands on amidst these Big-Brother EU food regulations. The Pringles and Mars bars are a comfort, even though the flavor is not authentically artificial. Burger King tastes awful – they just can’t get the preservatives right. KFC serves only nuggets, and the spices are not the cozy, familiar diarrhetic of the Colonel’s original bucketload.
But German Coke is it. The real thing. It adds life, and things go better with it. And here in the EU, Coca-Cola provides the extra nostalgia for we older Americans by containing real sugar. A whole shit-ton of it. And I’m grateful to have access to the demonic stuff (German stores do occasionally run out of Coca-Cola, something that would likely spark a violent revolution in the States) because it helps maintain a continuum in my sense of self. I am me with a steady supply of Coke. Because there has not been a single day in my fervently anti-corporate life that has not included a steady intake of America’s favorite fizzy fattener.
Hugh Hefner drank Pepsi every day of his life. Pepsi! It makes any jealousy I might have for the man go limp. Choosing Pepsi in the world of Coca-Cola is unfathomable to me. The Germans have rightly ignored Pepsi, making it very difficult to find. They’ve also shunned Dr. Pepper, Mt. Dew, Barg’s, or any number of America’s staple soft drinks, another case where Germany’s store shelves simply don’t offer the tidal wave of Choice we Piggly Wiggly shoppers are accustomed to. There’s the micro-brew Fritz label, which is Germanically bitter, a weird version of Fanta that has actual orange juice in it, and good old Coke. That’s Germany for you: plenty of political parties, but only three sodas.
But the Germans clearly do not have the same emotional ties to Coca-Cola that we Americans enjoy, that mythology of Coke-branded social order that the company is willing to overthrow uncooperative South American leftists to defend. Perhaps it’s a difference in the language.
Thirty years ago I was in a barbeque restaurant, the kind of place decorated with those antique Coca-Cola magazine ads featured in the Atlanta museum. I was so impressed with the copy on one 1939 advertisement that I wrote it down and stuffed it in my wallet, where it has stayed until this very day.
“Coca-Cola has the charm of purity. It is prepared with the finished art that comes from a lifetime of practice. Its deliciousness never loses the freshness of appeal that first delighted you…always bringing you a cool, clean sense of complete refreshment. Thirst asks nothing more.”
Right away you can see the problem. The words, a tremendously elegant pitch for a soft drink, more handsomely crafted than most genuine poetry, don’t actually mean anything. And this could never be translated successfully into German because meaningless words, especially those being applied so vigorously to the drinking of syrup and fizz, would be understandably suspect to the stoic and rationally-minded Deutschlander. We Americans, on the other hand, dazzled as we are with myth and illusion and dreams, are not only accepting of the meaningless phrases of commercial prosperity (“You Can’t Beat the Feeling,” “Catch the Wave”) but charmed by them. At worst, ready to arm ourselves to defend them.
If you ask me why I’ve kept that scrap of paper in my wallet since 1992, I’d tell you that it stayed there just because it’s always been there. A tradition the meaninglessness of which amuses me. But now I wonder if something more substantial is going on with that little OCD maneuver. A need to carry some feeling of nostalgic contentment with me, all the way to Germany. Something I needed to preserve from that moment of being 24 years old, enjoying a sandwich with my girlfriend, surrounded by totems of manufactured Americana from a lost age of mystical promise. All that shit I don’t believe in. While drinking, no doubt, the beverage with the charm of purity.**
Finally, the World of Coca-Cola releases us from the Persuasion Center. The screen itself actually rises up from the floor, revealing the entrance to the rest of the museum. We will walk through the wafting mist of The Message and carry it with us. Heike says it’s like Logan’s Run. I say it feels more like A Clockwork Orange.
Beyond the movie theater, we are invited into more movie theaters, each showing some Hollywood-style featurette starring Coca-Cola products or a documentary on the product’s legend. But we’ve had enough movie. Instead, we tour the physical exhibits, the Coke machines, lunch counter signage, and logo-branded ephemera that have enveloped every available square inch of American life for over a century. There’s an expansive “vault” motif, playing up the mystique of the secret formula, and a simulated production facility, which presents the manufacture of Coca-Cola as something between Lockheed-Martin industrialism and gene splicing. Then there is a tasting room, where one can sample sips of Coca-Cola’s numerous international soda brands not marketed in the States. The African soft drinks are tasty, though not heavily carbonated. The Italian brand is rancid, and everyone spits it out immediately. Read into that what you will.
Overall, the museum attempts to fill an ambitious space with not very much content, which expresses the reality of the product pretty well. There just isn’t very much to say about Coke. It is, after all, a feeling. A freshness of appeal. One the missionaries spread the good word about it every corner of this flat earth.
Just before the museum’s exit, there is a small desk, with paper and pen, and a sign on the wall, inviting tourists to “share your Coca-Cola story.” I imagine these contributions inspire the sort of images we see in the advertising. “We toasted the bride with Coke on the day Tommy came home from Afghanistan with a new puppy,” and so on. But I share a revelation I had years earlier, something which is absolutely true.
“Coca-Cola has been such an important and consistent part of my life that, at one point, I realized that every single time I have vomited, it has been the caramel-brown color of Coke.”
I doubt that will make it’s way into any ad copy about a “cool, clean sense of refreshment,” but as a testimony to my commitment to the product, I think it speaks liters.
*Where he was distributing Coca-Cola to the war-ravaged masses, of course.
**Said girlfriend at the time once told me, “You’re the least superstitious person I know.” She might be amused to see that I’m now somewhat afraid to remove that little scrap of paper from my wallet because it might bring bad luck!
(And let’s not forget Ashley’s website, jam-packed with portraits and other drawings, his highly-affordable prints and books currently available, his eagerness for your portrait commission, and his contact email, email@example.com, where he longs to hear from you.)