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By Jill Richardson, AlterNet

For God, Country, and Coca-Cola by Mark Pendergast is the definitive history of the product so many see as a symbol of America itself. This impressive tome – recently released as a third edition with added new material – is not a critique of Coca-Cola, nor is it a fan’s tribute, as Pendergast reveals things the Coca-Cola Company doesn’t want you to know. (Yes, it used to contain cocaine.) He even reveals the drink’s original secret formula (which is less exciting than you might think).


Coca-Cola is not fascinating for what it is – colored sugar water with bubbles – but for what it represents. And that’s a point long known by the company’s marketers, with the exception of when they forgot it during the New Coke fiasco in the 1980s. Today, marketing students in business schools everywhere study that famous gaff.

Despite the decades-old slogan, “Delicious and Refreshing,” people do not drink Coca-Cola for the taste. They drink it because they associate it with positive things like friendship, fun, patriotism, and athleticism. Careful to market the drink to all people, everywhere, without alienating anyone, the ads are often vague. “Coke is It!” What is “it”? It’s whatever you want it to be, just as long as it makes you want to buy more Coke!

The book guides readers through the decades of marketing campaigns that built this image, most significantly during World War II, when Coca-Cola was made available to U.S. soldiers everywhere in the world, often at the government’s expense. When sales slumped, the answer was never changing the flagship product; it was a new ad campaign. Remind consumers that Coke = fun (or simpler times, or hope, or whatever feeling they crave) and they will drink more of it.

Because constant, never-ending growth is seen as essential, the other necessity is finding new channels to facilitate more Coke-drinking than ever before. Today, you can be 50 miles from nowhere in any country except Cuba and North Korea and if you crave an ice-cold Coca-Cola, you can get one. Even in places where few have clean drinking water or electricity, both needed to produce ice-cold Coke, some enterprising entrepreneur will have electricity and a cooler and plenty of Coke. The same cannot be said of nearly any other product.

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