You ought to drink less Coke (Part 3)

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Let us just take a refreshing pause as we consider this Valkyrie on her modern-day horse; she is gorgeously pink and pleasantly dimpled and in so many ways a Titian vision of blonde loveliness ‘that could make a bishop kick in a stained-glass window’. Coke has crow-barred itself into this picture of joy and with its official stamp positioned itself as the preeminent consideration in the entirely spurious “Coke + beautiful woman = happiness” equation. Unfortunately adorning a product with a woman is no new trick and a marketing technique unlikely to lose its attraction any time soon; sidebar this lowest-common-denominator approach to advertising has also inflamed various kinds of terrible social problems by unintentionally reinforcing the equally spurious “woman = product” idea. While we take another refreshing pause in order to allow time for the blood to return to your brain I would like to casually suggest that advertising works by coupling the product it is trying to sell with something (abstract) that you actually want; and that the repetition of the same message over time establishes what seems like a ‘natural’ link between the two. Eventually we start thinking in shorthand; from “Coke + fantastically beautiful woman + fairground + holiday = happiness”, we collapse the equation:

“Coke […] = happiness.”

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Sex, love, youth, happiness, friendship, freedom, Victory, (“one people, one nation,” if you live in Nazi Germany) and the “Carry On” motto of the British in WW2; Coke has corralled all of these magnificent, abstract things in order to peddle its sombre draught.  Of all of these evidently desirable things, a bottle of Coke is the only one that you can actually buy; and so we do. This is exactly the public relations technique that Edward Bernays (a nephew of Freud) theorised and was an expert of: appealing to irrational, unconscious desires in order to direct and control the behaviour of the masses.

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The point I am eventually going to make if I ever stop getting distracted by the pictures (notice pretty fraulein with proffered face, breasts and tray in order of consideration) is that while companies like Coke are in the end only trying to sell us 5 cent bottles of syrupy carbonated water, with over a century’s worth of relentless propaganda it’s fair to say that we have not only been irretrievably charmed by their witch’s brew but also allowed them to define for us incredibly important concepts such as: “happiness”; “friendship” (Share a Coke with…) ; “the good things in life”; “quality family time” and indeed all “sunny and pleasant things”; that which is “home-like”; “purity and quality”; “leisure” and “refreshment” — even “health” (Coca-Cola revives and sustains, apparently; it has some undeniable yet indefinable connection to sports in any case) — in the same way that we allowed Coke to determine the way that we picture Saint Nicholas.

Coke has even bought shares in “democracy”. In the twenties and thirties Coke and all kinds of mass-manufactured products came to be thought of as a truly democratic thing: the standardisation and modern, effective methods of distribution meant any one and everyone, born high and low, from movie stars and fashionable sophisticates to okies in their old jalopy and young drifters like Bonnie and Clyde, from Fatty Arbuckle and his unfortunate paramour to the King of England — anyone could enjoy a bottle of delicious, refreshing Coca-Cola for 5 cents and know it was the same purity and quality as the one the other fellow was drinking. It was even possible for the refreshment of 5 cent Cokes to follow American soldiers around the globe during WWII — same as the Betty Grable pin-up. It is precisely this popular, ‘democratic’ appeal (and one-size-fits-all approach to international relations) which made the Coca-Cola Company extraordinarily successful and awesomely rich, and terrifyingly powerful, a lot like omniscient Santa with his ever-watchful twinkling eyes and comprehensive list of children who have been naughty or nice; those good children he leaves Coke-bottle-shaped presents for and those bad ones he brings litigation against.

Read Next: You Ought To Drink Less Coke, QED (Part Four)

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You ought to drink less Coke (Part 2)

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“I’m saying this for Uncle Sam… I speak for the pleasant, happy things in life… All the things we necessarily now have less of. You know… tires, radios, gas, fuel, food, fun, leisure and all the like. In its own way, your bottle of ice cold Coca-Cola is almost a casual symbol of such pleasant things.”

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Thus spake the Coca Cola sprite in 1943, in a truly delicious and refreshing print ad linking patriotism, the fruits of industrial capitalism (fun, leisure),  your pleasure (and indeed all pleasant, happy things), the buying of war bonds and, of course, ice-cold Coca-Cola. That’s not to doubt that good folks everywhere suffered privations during the war; the rubber for tires, gas, fuel etc. were all being diverted into the war effort; but rest assured that where there were privations / mild inconveniences (we’re talking about mainland America, remember, not Europe) the Coca-Cola company was there to step in with a 5 cent bottle of soda pop that would be a ‘refreshing pause’ from blasting Messerschmitts out of the sky and being generally muscular and heroic Yankee Joes, or whatever it was. They were there to make you feel good, to bring your family together, to lighten up Christmas, to remind you of old times, as “a casual symbol” of decent American things etc etc etc etc etc etc. While disingenuously spinning some shit about buying war bonds, Coca-Cola have positioned themselves as some kind of bulwark against the realities of war, or the epitome of what is meant when people talk about ‘the good American way of life’; so enjoying a Coke becomes a patriotic duty on par with buying war bonds; in a movie-ready moment Coke is assuming good Joes everywhere shouted, “You can take our tires, but never take our Coke!” as their planes went down in flames leaving nought but an elegiac trail of smoke above alien lands. Call me a cynic, but if they cared so much about getting people to buy war bonds, if taking out this ad was a purely patriotic or altruistic gesture, there’d be no need to throw in a reference to an ice-cold Coke, would there? Unless, of course, they’re actually being generous with their riches and are willing to share around some of the goodwill that Coke advertising had generated over the many years, for a cause greater than their own…

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Well, of course, that’s advertising, we all know, like an ancient painted tart claiming to be just 18 we’re wise to their tricks (it’s all done with lighting and mirrors) but still we succumb and let them work their professional ‘magic’ upon our weary souls. Enjoying a Coke is on par with a lot of equally saccharine and ultimately unimportant diversions, but a lot of people would tell you that the having and enjoying of such sweet, inessential, transient things is one of the aims (benefits? by products?) of capitalism and democracy.

(Like Nabokov wrote in Lolita, “Mentally I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth — these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things… If some cafe sign proclaimed Icecold Drinks, she was automatically stirred, although all drinks everywhere were ice-cold. She it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster.”)

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The same logical fallacy has been used in much the same way again and again ad infinitum over the years: criticise anything as being inessential, wasteful, and fundamentally meaningless and you’ll get some towering intellect accusing you of Communism (and / or pretentiousness), and asserting the apparently boundless rights of “average Aussie families” to have everything they could ever possibly want for the very lowest price  (or preferably for free). For some reason many Australians, living in one of the only Western economies that survived the GFC, have a terminal problem with the “hip pocket nerve”. Add to this the knowledge that gradually over the course of the last century, public relations men such as Edward Bernays, in cahoots with the media, individual businesses and entire industries, governments and politicians, went out of their way to inextricably link Democracy and Capitalism in the mind of the public. (See the 2002 BBC documentary “The Century of The Self” by Adam Curtis.) The result of this anti-Communist propaganda work was so effective that even today when it could just seem like an interesting but failed social experiment, or an absurd bogey of the Cold War era, Communism is a dirty word (like ‘feminism’ it is too often wilfully misunderstood) and public commentators (the more moronic of a lot known for their many and various moronic ways) will shut down legitimate arguments and criticism of governments and irresponsible multi-national companies by portraying the critics as hippies or communists, intent on removing  civilised comforts from the average family — their relentless, uninformed or deliberately distorted sneering taints the word “environmentalist” with the same brush.  For all of the dirty nut-whack hippies out there, isn’t it just possible that some of them — some of them — have something valuable, reasonable and important to say?

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Edward Bernays (‘the father of Public Relations’ and an expert in propaganda) believed that the ‘herd instinct’ we see in society was irrational and dangerous, and that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy. In Propaganda (1928) Bernays wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. […] We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. 
[…] In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

However, elsewhere Bernays added a caveat: a public relations counsel “must never accept a retainer or assume a position which puts his duty to the groups he represents above his duty to society.”

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to Coke, in part three of this no doubt thrilling and perfectly argued albeit imperfectly referenced rant. Read Part Three

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You ought to drink less Coke (Part 1)

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If you weren’t already aware of the incredible, pervasive influence that large companies and advertising can have on society, then let’s just stop to think about the fact that The Coca-Cola Company invented Santa Claus as we know him. Haddon Sundblom’s rosy cheeked Santa first appeared in 1931, and he went on periodically refreshing himself with Coke until 1964, when he was found dead at the bottom of a pool; an autopsy noted that his liver and heart were heavily enlarged by drug and alcohol abuse. Don’t try to give me that “Saint Nicholas” is a real saint shit. Every year Christmas comes around and the fat guy with the beard, red suit, belt and reindeer becomes ubiquitous; in the 10 and a half months of every year when Christmas decorations are not socially acceptable, you see a pair of boots sticking out of a chimney, you don’t think, “Oh dear, a burglar,” but “Santa got stuck”; you see an albino with a full Ned Kelly / hipster beard and you wonder why a 20 year old would want to walk around looking like Santa; in the tradition of ‘the pause that refreshes’ Coke ads, every time I put on my red jacket because I’m sick to death of the people in Melbourne who wear black all of the time, I wonder if it is sage, or if I’m going to risk some jerk muttering something about Santa. The flow-on effect of the ‘everybody loves Santa’ thing is that old bearded fat guys who could be bikies or pedos for all anyone knows are automatically assumed to be jolly and kind. This is a great lesson in PR for pedos.

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If you look over the history of companies like Coca-Cola you’ll know that they became the incredibly large, rich, powerful and influential companies that they are today due to visionary marketing and advertising techniques that positively associated them with the biggest ideas and events of the 20th century: Coke has sponsored sports events (including sailing and bullfighting) and the Olympic Games since ‘way back when’.  Athleticism was a Nazi ideal and throughout the 1930’s Coca-Cola (GmbH) ‘cashed in heavily’ sponsoring  events such as the annual Deutschlandrundfahrt (National Bycicle Championships) and the Soccer Cup. Coca Cola was one of three official beverage sponsors of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Here Hitler and the Nazis hoped to show the world a ‘resurgent Germany’ and depicted the German victories as proof of Aryan racial superiority; Coke’s advertising used the motto: Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Getrank (One People, One Nation, One Drink).

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But other than Father Christmas and sports, Halloween and boy scouts, also consider Coke’s association with concepts such as youth, health and vigour; beautiful women and pin-up girls; parties; fun [in the abstract]; Summer [three months of a year]; music; being slim; Democracy and the American way of life itself.

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Coke was almost an official sponsor of the American soldiers in World War Two: Robert Woodruff [president of the Coca Cola Company from 1923 -1954] decided that Coca Cola’s place was near the front line. ‘See that every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca Cola for 5 cents wherever he is and whatever the cost to the company,’ he said.

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So they did. In Brussels, in Italy, in Paris, while battle-seasoned Seabees piled ashore in the Admiralty’s, in recreation huts and air bases, somewhere in the Pacific area, ‘the phrase Have a Coke expresses the friendliness and hospitality that come second-nature to your Yankee fighting man. It’s his way of saying, Pardner, you belong: you’re a good Joe. Whenever they meet up with Coca-Cola they find… a flashback to their own way of living, friendliness and refreshment all wrapped up in one happy, home-like moment.’

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Meantime due to the war the German bottlers could no longer get Coca Cola syrup from the States, so the CEO of Coca-Cola (GmbH), Max Keith, invented Fanta; it was made out of the ingredients he had available to him and produced specifically for the Nazi market and the Third Reich. 

fanta-nazi-german-world-war-2After establishing a fond, friendly, home-like, nostalgic place in the hearts of good Yankee Joes, and surfeiting the palates of the citizens of the Third Reich, Coke then went on to ingratiate itself with America’s international allies, and its advertising spruiked the drink as a universal symbol for friendliness and peace. Looking at these ads you can literally see the spread of an American cultural hegemony. When peace was declared, a little bit of America had been left behind everywhere those hearty chaps with their 5 cent bottles had been. In a similar way today empty coke bottles and lids are often left behind on beaches and by rivers and at bus shelters and indeed wherever Coca-Cola is sold in bottles, and good times have been had by all.

Continued NextYou Ought to Drink Less Coke Part 2

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The elephant in the room (Nancy fails the Bechdel test)

I had to think quick if I wanted to get Nancy off the topic of my father while he sweated in the pantry. “Have you ever heard of this thing called the Bechdel test?” I asked. “To pass the test, a film has to have at least two female characters in it, and at some stage in the movie the women have to have a conversation with each other, and the conversation has to be about anything — anything in the world — other than a man. The vast, vast majority of movies fail the test. A disturbing number don’t even have more than one female character.”

“Oh?” said Nancy, feigning interest. “So for instance, right now are we talking about a man?”

“No,” said I. “Technically we are talking about women in movies who talk about men.” Again I flourished my knife towards the pink pantry doors. “It just shouldn’t be that difficult for screenwriters to put words into the mouths of women without having them come to blows over existentialism in the middle of a beach party. You could slip one in — a conversation I mean — right in the heart of it and nobody would know any better — nobody would notice a thing.”

“I take your point,” said Nancy Sinatra. “But, I mean, in reality it’s only natural that we talk about men sometimes. They make up 48% of the population after all, except in China; to me it just doesn’t seem very nice to go about acting like they’re not there at all or that they’re incapable of ever doing anything worthwhile except for seeding the next generation.” She had her back to the pantry thank fuck and couldn’t see my father’s bloodshot eyes shining through the slats. She swished her glass round and round, then when she’d stopped, the olive on its stick kept swirling while she stared at it. “Surely when two women come together, and one of them says, ‘How are you, sister?’ and the other one says, ‘Sister, I’m miserable,’ then the topic of men is going to come up at some point?”

“I’ll let that one slide, Nance,” said I. “All I’m saying is, there are so many other things in the world to talk about, let us not linger on the morbid countenance of certain bloated actors for any longer. It is a beautiful day; the sunlight is breaking over the hills; how tender and pink are the clouds this morning, like little fluffy elephants, spiriting hither and thither on sweet zephyrs, [blah, blah, blah]…”  I put my arm around Nancy and walked her over to the window, so she could look out at the magnificent, shimmering view.

You only live twice, or so it seems.

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Nancy Sinatra came in. I was cutting up the left-overs from the Texas Bar-B-Que so I had a knife in my hand and I waved it menacingly at the slats in the pantry doors to remind Archie to keep quiet. “Good morning Nance,” said I. “I hope you slept well.” In fact she looked like hell. I had never seen a woman so aged in the wan light of the dawn, high up in the hills on Shitsville Ranch.

“I’d like a little pick-me-up,” said Nancy. As she drew on her restorative breakfast draught from the elegant Absolut bottle she said,  “A cheerful lift to make me bright and lively again. Those awful films we watched all night beat hell out of me. It never ceases to amaze me, your father’s aptitude for bloodiness. Chances are the government and the actor’s guild and my father all conspired to have him drafted so he’d get shot or at least take a break from making movies.”

She meant well, of course; the people who love my father best are always the ones who ridicule him the most. Once he said to me, “Honey, you gotta try harder to be nicer to people you despise.” But I said, “If I were nicer, they wouldn’t know I despised them, then what incentive would they have to change?” A lot of my father’s women naturally worked along the same principle. But I could hear my father in the pantry, wheezing and straining to keep his stomach sucked in; there was nothing to stop him from bursting out in either rage or passion if she went on deriding him in that famous Sinatra way. And I didn’t want him to expose himself in any capacity, for fear my friendly Sinatra cheque would disappear. Yes, thought I, it is better to let her grope numbly on through a nymphomaniac’s grief and a vodka haze for a while longer; clearly she was suffering terribly over my father’s death, and to discover he was alive could be dangerous to her fragile Sinatra mind, like waking a sleepwalker.