“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.”
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…
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.”)
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?
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