When Mark Pendergrast was a boy, his mother refused to allow Coca-Cola in the house. She told him it would rot his teeth, disturb his sleep, and pollute his body with chemicals. Her warnings backfired, however, only making “something mysterious and enticing about the dark, bubbly liquid.” He’d go on to sneak a sip of the forbidden drink at a friend’s house, a moment he describes as when “nothing has ever tasted so sinfully good.”
The soft drink was far from the witches’ brew he was led to believe, although there was some wickedness in it. As another surreptitious Coke drinker described it, Pendergrast writes, “the effervescence was boldly astringent and as clean as a knife; the flavor suggested the corrupt spices of Araby and a hint, perhaps, of brimstone.”
Professedly as revenge against his mother, Pendergrast authored the book For God, Country & Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink And the Company That Makes It. He sent me the book—now newly revised and expanded in its third edition—along with a message via email asking if I would review it, which I agreed to do. The book’s jacket describes it quite accurately: as a “captivating story” (a true American story) of the soft drink’s “invention as a cocaine-laced patent medicine in the Gilded Age” to becoming “the world’s most recognizable consumer product” and one mired in controversy.
Born in the “Golden Age of Quackery”
The story begins with John Pemberton, an herbal practitioner and “root doctor” (and morphine addict), during the late 1800s in Atlanta, Georgia. It was the “Golden Age of Quackery,” a time when advertising on herbal tonics and concoctions had reached “stunning proportions” and, at the onset of the local Prohibition, a time ripe with ”hysteria about the evils of alcohol.” Pemberton was obsessed with striking it rich. He’d come up with hundreds of patent medicines in his lab that he’d market as remedies for everything ranging from cough and headaches, to opium or morphine addiction and alcoholism, to sexual dysfunction and “all chronic and wasting diseases.”
Around the same time, soda fountains were growing in popularity. An 1891 commentator described them as “temples resplendent in crystal marble and silver.” But consumers were growing tired of old fruit flavors that were offered. They wanted something else—perhaps new, mysterious, something “secret or from an exotic country.” The soda fountains gave birth to concoctions still known today such as Root Beer and Dr. Pepper. Coca-Cola would also meet its opportunity there at the soda fountains as a sort of “nerve tonic” and cure-all. One of Pemberton’s labels ran like this:
COCA-COCALA SYRUP AND EXTRACT For Soda Water and other Carbonated Beverages. This Intellectual Beverage and Temperance Drink contains the valuable Tonic and Nerve Stimulant properties of the Coca plant and Cola (or Kola) nuts, and makes not only a delicious, exhilarating, refreshing and invigorating Beverage (dispensed from the soda water fountain or in other carbonated beverages, but a valuable Brain Tonic and a cure for all nervous affections—Sick Head-Ache, Neuralgia, Hysteria, Melancholy, etc. The peculiar flavor of COCA-COLA delights every palate.
The book goes on telling how the soft drink’s exposure grew once it finally landed in the capable hands of Asa Candler, a “well-capitalized, industrious businessman,” who took control of it in 1888. Candler was “active, pushy, and reliable” and knew how to grow a company by marketing the product with missionary zeal (as well as a symbol as patriotism). It’s a tradition that has grown the company into the worldwide empire that it is today—complete with its controversies over its political scandals, marketing tactics, and nutritional (or lack of nutritional) make-up.
Obesity, Coke’s Greatest Threat
It’s always fascinating to learn how “heroes” end up as “villains” in a story. In the case of the world’s most well known soft drink, what was once a medicine is now called a “primary culprit” in the obesity epidemic. In Pendergrast’s new third edition was Chapter 24, in which the author tells how the company has had to deal with what Coke CEO Doug Daft described as the “biggest challenge the industry had faced in half a century.”
The book describes several political battles the company has fought. For example, in 2002, the company wrestled with a California bill that would ban all soda from public schools. John Alm, president of Coca-Cola Enterprises, the giant bottling company (not The Coca-Cola Company), would declare in that fight that the war against obesity was a “war that’s been declared on our company.” The company managed to weaken the bill by including an exemption for high schools. There would be several more battles in different states across the country.
The obesity problem wouldn’t go away and critics wouldn’t be satisfied. The company would also sponsor exercise programs across several countries and even nutritional programs in some countries. Yet at the same time, Pendergrast writes, they funded Center for Consumer Freedom to provide “another voice in the debate”—the corporate front group (that originally defended Big Tobacco) would go on to take full ads making accusations that consumers were being “fed a diet of obesity myths.”
Changing with the Times — Could Coke Outlast America?
While reading the new chapters in the book, at times it’s hard to tell what side to be on in the back-and-forth arguments. For example, when controversies over soft drinks in schools reportedly came to a head in 2006 in Connecticut, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) had pushed for all soft drinks in all public and private schools to be banned. CSPI’s reasoning was that soft drinks had overtaken milk consumption. Although CSPI should be commended for their wanting to improve child nutrition in schools, Coca-Cola rightly complained that it didn’t make sense to ban diet sodas while sugary sports drinks and juices were permissible. But, then again, there was the Vitamin Water fight in which CSPI rightly pointed out that advertising “Vitamins + water = all you need” on the label was deceptive because of the drink’s high amounts of sugar and calories.
Something also interesting was discovering how much the company has changed with the times in the face of public scrutiny. From the early days of pulling cocaine from their formula for fears it was causing addiction to replacing artificial caramel coloring (which was linked to cancer in animals) with natural caramel coloring. In Pendergrast’s narrative, he also follows a series of Coke’s many flops and successes in its marketing campaigns. The book provides many useful lessons for food manufacturers or marketers: 1) it’s all about image (“We’re selling smoke… They’re drinking image, not the product”); 2) make it about community (people love to “belong to a warm, loving, accepting family, singing in perfect harmony”; like a religion); and 3) beware marketing any product to children (especially if it can be equated to “liquid candy”). Coke has always found ways to adapt over the years; so much that the author suggests that as a company it could even outlast the existence of a country like the U.S.
Whatever position you have on soft drinks or monstrous global empires, Pendergrast’s For God, Country, & Coca-Cola makes for an excellent read that will inform your opinions and, perhaps, give you a few more. It’s a rather lengthy volume—at 506 pages, along with stretches of company history and entertaining accounts not mentioned here. But, for the health-minded audience, I’d highly encourage reading at least the first few chapters (as a lesson in American history of quackery) as well as the latter chapters (23 and so on) about relatively recent dealings of Coca-Cola attempting to emerge as unscathed as possible by obesity challenges through promotion of exercise and healthy eating worldwide.