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How Coca-Cola's Ruthless Business Tactics Created a Despicable Global Powerhouse

Mark Pendergast's book, "For God, Country, and Coca-Cola" guides readers through decades of shrewd marketing campaigns and the company's ugly history.

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Coca-Cola told us it wanted to teach the world to sing, but it’s far more likely it is giving the world diabetes. Today, a small Coke at McDonalds is 16 ounces. Pendergast, ever the balanced journalist presenting both sides, fails to definitely state that Coca-Cola is unhealthy. He generously points out that Coca-Cola creates jobs and donates to charity, even though he notes the company’s policy of “strategic philanthropy” – i.e. using “charitable” donations to gain access to valuable markets, particularly children.

The book is a long and somewhat exhausting read, but it’s also a captivating history of the development of America’s consumer culture (and terrible dietary habits) and it contains fascinating profiles of the men (yes, mostly men) behind the company, making readers wonder what a psychologist might have to say about these often tyrannical, driven workaholics.

Here are some answers Pendergast gave about his book and the company he wrote about.

Jill Richardson: Why did you choose the title For God, Country, and Coca-Cola

Mark Pendergast: Coca-Cola has been a kind of religion to many people, including the inventor, John Pemberton, who died two years after he came up with it, and Asa Candler, who took it over and used to lead the singing of "Onward Christian Soldiers" at his sales meetings. 

These were days when the drink was under attack for having cocaine in it and even afterwards for its caffeine content. So they felt like early Christian martyrs in a way, fighting for a just cause. Candler called Coca-Cola "a boon to mankind." Coke employees have always joked that they have Coca-Cola syrup flowing in their veins. 

The drink has also become a kind of religion for consumers, a symbol of the American way of life as well. During World War II the drink was deemed an "essential morale booster" for the troops, and it was served in lieu of communion wine during the Battle of the Bulge. When New Coke was introduced in 1985, people wrote anguished letters as if they had killed God. Here is an actual letter I quoted in the book: "There are only two things in my life: God and Coca-Cola. Now you have taken one of those things away from me." I could go on....

JR: Can you explain Coca-Cola's relationship with the two ingredients in its name, coca and kola nuts? How much cocaine was initially in the product and when was it removed? 

MP: Coca-Cola was named for its two principal drug ingredients. Coca leaf from Peru contained cocaine. Kola nut from Ghana contained caffeine. Original Coca-Cola had a very small amount of cocaine in a six-ounce drink, about 4.3 milligrams. The company took out all but a minuscule amount of cocaine in 1903 and the final amount in 1928.

JR: You imply in the book that it's attempted to sugarcoat (no pun intended) this part of its past, saying at some points that the product never contained cocaine. Is that true? Can you elaborate? 

MP: Every time I go to the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, I ask the guides if Coca-Cola ever contained cocaine. They assure me that it did not. The official company line seems to be that Coca-Cola never contained added cocaine -- i.e., they didn't add white powdered cocaine, which is true. But it did contain fluid extract of coca leaf, which contains cocaine. For years, the company line has also been that the name "Coca-Cola" is just a "euphonious combination of words" -- i.e., it sounds nice. True, but the drink was also named for its two principal drug sources.

 
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