Coca-Cola's Troubling History: Drug Addicts, Nazis and MLK's Condemnation

From the book Belching Out The Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola by Mark Thomas.  Excerpted by arrangement with Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.


‘Coke is like a little bottle of sparkle-dust.’

Inside the Happiness Factory, The Coca-Cola Company ‘documentary’

The morning is cheerfully cold, a lovely Southern winter’s day in Atlanta; the sun makes not one bit of difference to the temperature but it shines bright across the clear blue sky. A few police officers stand around Pemberton Park in the city centre, coats zipped up and wearing hats with earmuffs that dangle down each side of their heads, gently reducing them from figures of authority to parodies of Elmer Fudd. They drink coffee, smile and nod as I wander past. This is the entrance to The World of Coca-Cola and somewhere discreet loudspeakers are playing Coke’s most memorable advertising jingle, ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke.’ Which may explain the earmuffs.

I like to think the company plays this song as a hymn of thanks to the Atlanta Development Authority who gave them $5.4 million to help pay for the park landscaping and the entrance plaza, or the City Council who scrapped $1.5 million worth of sales tax for the company, or indeed the property tax worth $2 million that the Atlanta city fathers decided they didn’t want Coca-Cola to pay. Coke might be worth billions but they are not averse to sticking out their hand for loose change, especially when the loose change has six noughts at the end of it.

In pride of place in the state-subsidized Pemberton Park stands a six-foot four-inch bronze statue of the area’s namesake, the founding father of Coca-Cola, pharmacist John Pemberton. Officially he created the drink in 1886 and sold it from Jacob’s pharmacy; now, over 120 years later, his noble image stands facing the park, one hand on a small Victorian table at his side. In his other hand he holds up a glass of Coca-Cola, partly in celebration, partly inspecting it, his impassive face considering his drink and offering it out to the world. It is the image of a pioneer, a scientist hero and benefactor to humanity. Sir Alexander Fleming wouldn’t have minded having a statue like this and he discovered penicillin. The statue portrays Pemberton as thinner than the photos I have seen of him, where he looks a tad chubby. This apparently is not the only factual discrepancy. According to Mark Pendergrast, one of the most respected authors on the company, John Pemberton returned from the American civil war addicted to morphine. So Coca-Cola’s founder was a chunkie junkie, though in fairness, who would erect a statue of a fat druggie outside a family tourist attraction – with the exception of the Elvis Presley estate?

So for the greater good of the corporate image ol’ morphine Pemberton loses a few pounds and gets clean. And inside the historical revisionism continues; bizarrely there is no mention of one of the drink’s original ingredients, cocaine, which with hindsight is hardly the greatest sin, as there were other beverages of the late nineteenth century that contained varying quantities of Colombia’s most famous export. Admittedly it’s a slightly messy fact: one minute you want to teach the world to sing, the next you want to teach the world to talk really quickly and rub its gums with an index finger.

It is these ‘messy facts’ that the Company seem to have an almost pathological desire to try and hide. They are deviations in the Company narrative, grit in the PR grease. And Coca-Cola do not like grit in the grease.

The World of Coca-Cola’s image control even extends to their choice of neighbours. Right next to it sits the Georgia Aquarium; in 2002 Coke gave nine acres for the aquarium. In 2006 Coke set aside two and a half acres for a civil rights museum – for an attraction that would celebrate Atlanta as the cradle of the movement, with plans to house some 7,000 odd pages of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s writings. Thus corporate and civic history entwine together in one single downtown location, so we can remember the fight for human dignity and visit the fish.

Coke’s new neighbors may or may not choose to display details of Dr King’s last-ever speech, made the day before he was killed. In it he called for African Americans to withdraw their economic support of companies if they ‘haven’t been fair in their hiring policies,’ that is, favoring white workers over black workers. One of three companies that was targeted for boycotting that night was Coca-Cola. Dr King’s exact words were, ‘we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis.’

Likewise there may or may not be mention of the lawsuit bought against the company by hundreds of Coke employees, accusing them of discriminating against black workers in pay and promotion. The Company made no admission to these charges, but in November 2000 announced they were paying $192.5 million to settle the case. If you’re measuring racism by the buck, that’s a fuck of a lot of racism.

Another little story the Company are not fond of is linked to the Olympics. Coca-Cola’s relationship with the Olympic Games began in 1928. But Coke downplays its sponsorship of the 1936 Games, the Berlin Olympics, where a certain psychopathic painter and decorator launched a PR drive to promote his Nazi state. The Coca-Cola Company are happy to mention that one of the US 1936 Olympic rowing team went on to become their chairman. They are also proud to point out that sprinter Jesse Owens advertised Coke – though this was years after he won four gold medals in Berlin, somewhat spiking the Aryan master-race theories of his host. The Company are keener to place themselves alongside those who are seen as ‘fighting’ the Nazis or promoting the ‘Olympic ideal,’ rather than display themselves as a backers of the Olympic platform given to Hitler. And frankly, who wouldn’t be?

But the Company have a few other Nazi items in the attic. Consider Max Keith, the managing director of Coca-Cola GmbH, Coke’s bottler in Germany, during World War Two. As the war progressed the supply of ingredients to make Coca-Cola dried up, so Max invented a new drink to quench the German thirst. He named it Fanta. Now there’s a strap line for an ad. Fanta: The Reich Stuff!

Company historians note that Max Keith never joined the Nazi Party but he did exhibit Coca-Cola GmbH at a trade fair organized to embrace the concept of the German worker under the Fuhrer. In another instance Max Keith decorated his Coca Cola stand with Nazi flags. This has been confirmed by The Coca-Cola Company which said: ‘[Max] Keith at a bottler convention displayed swastikas and ended with a salute to Hitler. [This] would not have been out of place in the US if it were reversed and the podium had an American Flag and the proceedings began or ended with the Pledge of Allegiance.’ I’ll leave you to be the judge of that.

What I do know is that The Coca-Cola Company archives have pictures of the stand at the trade fair ‘that depict swastikas used as decor’ under the Coca-Cola banner. It is merely a guess on my part that the archivist would rather burn in hell than release those photos for public viewing.

It’s fairly safe to say that these stories are not going to generate greater sales for Coca-Cola, with the exception of the odd Klan customer. None of these facts, whether it is Pemberton’s naughty needle, Fanta’s dodgy parentage or King’s condemnation, tell the story Coca-Cola want us to hear and it is the story they want to tell that sells their drink.

To hear the Coca-Cola story, it is a $15 admission charge for adults, $9 for kids aged between three and twelve. But before you are tempted to visit the World of Coca-Cola ask yourself one question: what is on show here? They make fizzy drinks and advertise all over the world in order to sell them; all they have are bottles and adverts – they can’t make a museum out of that, can they? Yes, they can. That is exactly what the World of Coca-Cola is: Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola adverts and a gift shop selling Coca-Cola merchandise.

Click here to buy a copy of Belching Out the Devil


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