Belching Out The Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola

A sign reads: ‘Whether it’s a childhood memory, a moment of refreshment far from home, or a recollection of good times with friends, Coca-Cola touches the lives of millions of people. Do you have a favourite Coca-Cola story? Share your story with us…’ Which is exactly what I am doing. Going around the world, hearing stories from people whose lives have been touched by Coca-Cola and its bottlers.

Mark Thomas is something like a British Michael Moore. Except with intelligence and subtlety. He isn’t afraid to ask hard questions. His TV shows actually led to changes in legislation. In this new book he takes on the Coca-Cola company and humankind’s obsession with carbonated drinks.

Belching Out The Devil reads like a thriller in places. This is from Thomas’s passage about a trade union organiser running from paramilitaries: ‘There and then El Diablo made the most important decision of his life. He ran. He took off running down the village street screaming ‘Van a matar a mi!’ They are going to kill me!’ This is from the gripping first section of the book, in which Thomas talks about the company’s activities in Colombia – the most dangerous place to be a union man. Trade unionists at a local Coke bottling plant have been murdered by rightwing paras. The union broke up and the bottlers’ wages went down.

Like many ferociously capitalist companies, Coca-Cola takes a dim view of competition. When a Mexican rival to Coke was developed, ‘Big Cola,’ the company used bribes and pressure on small traders to stop them stocking the new product. From a conversation with Thomas’s source, ‘Coke Throat’:

‘So you would say to them if you have Big Cola in the fridge here, it’s a Coca-Cola fridge, get the Big Cola out or I’m taking the fridge.’

‘Exactly, or get Big Cola out of the store or I won’t supply you with Coca-Cola.’

It all sounds slightly Al Capone with carbonation, going round to stores and intimidating or cajoling shopkeepers to get rid of Big Cola and I say, ‘That’s almost like Mafia tactics isn’t it?’

Coke Throat affords a smile, ‘Well, let’s just call it protecting my market share.’

Polluting drinking water in Nejapa, exploiting Chilean delivery men, gagging Latin American trade unionists, evading tax and, naturally, sponsoring the Beijing Olympics – Coca-Cola’s crimes are legion.

As a reader the question you’re continually asking is: how much of this can be traced directly to head office? The answer is: not much. Also like many big corporations, the command structure is byzantine and deniability seems built into the system. But Thomas is right to dismiss claims that the company is ultimately blameless. As he says, if your name’s on the bottle it’s your responsibility.

As well as a thriller, this book is a travelogue, and Thomas shows he’s actually a pretty decent prose writer. A Coke obsessive we meet in Turkey strikes Thomas is someone ‘whose Ralph Steadman protrait would actually look prettier than the subject’; a Jaipur professor has ‘an air of quiet and calm exasperation, a man who has had to explain the obvious too many times’; a House of Commons committee room ‘serves to emphasis the fact that no one does grandeur quite so dully as the British’. Thomas’s observational skills complement his sense of morality.

Resistance is not futile. Corporations now parrot the language of social responsibility and we have come a little way since No Logo. The Coca-Cola stories can make you sick with pity and rage, but ultimately the public are more clued up about pollution and extortion: more likely to wonder, as Thomas does, what the hell they are drinking. So the company has to at least pretend to take Thomas seriously – their official response to him, hilariously, includes lawyers’ strikethroughs and comments. The appendices, which also include a death threat send to a Colombian activist, are well worth reading.

Or perhaps they do take Thomas seriously. Companies like this are selling a brand, not a product; and the brand has to be associated with good and special things in the consumer’s mind. Big corporations are run like churches and like religions they do need an impact on private thoughts and emotions. A Washington psychologist found that companies whose adverts tapped into nostalgia – Hovis, Wetherspoon’s – could actually alter people’s memories: ‘In one study, US adults ‘remembered’ drinking Stewart’s root beer from bottles in their youth, although the bottles had only been in production for 10 years.’ As Douglas Coupland has said, advertising can colonise your reality to some extent.

Thomas has a fascinating section on how Coca-Cola became woven into religious Hispanic communities in the 1950s in a way similar to the classic cargo cult. Again: the brand has to be associated with Christmas, good times, happy memories and this is done through countless advertisements and training videos. Stories about murdered Colombians tend to spoil the picture. For take away the brand, and what is left?

This is the problem. You can call it sparkling beverages as many times as you want and you can talk of magic moments of refreshments but Coca-Cola is fizzy pop. You can talk of consumers inviting you into their lives and you can treasure secret formulas but all you are selling is essentially sugar and water: fizzy pop. No one actually needs Coca-Cola and no one would die if it disappeared off the planet tomorrow.

(Cross posted to Shiraz)

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