So one day I was looking for some advertisements I could use with my English classes to discuss graphic texts and advertising strategies. I stumbled across Vintage Ad Browser's repository of Coca-Cola advertisements, and I was just captivated. It had never occurred to me before that Coca-Cola provides a perfect opportunity to chart the evolution of advertising over the course of more than a century. I pulled many ads through the decades to use with my class, and as we discussed the popularity of Coca-Cola, I started wanting to know more and more about this globally dominant brand. Although I am a millennial, I’m enough of a bookworm that my second reaction (the first being “I’m going to look on Wikipedia”) was, “Someone must have written a book about this.”
Indeed, Mark Pendergrast has. And even updated it twice over! For God, Country & Coca-Cola deserves its subtitle (The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It). Pendergrast is beyond thorough in his quest to chronicle the origins, expansion, and ongoing influence of The Coca-Cola Company. From Dr. John Pemberton’s initial attempts to create a mildly profitable medicinal nostrum to the beginnings of the Company under Asa Candler all the way through the hegemonies of Robert Woodruff and his successors, Pendergrast discusses every intimate detail of Coca-Cola production. Basically, if there was ever any question you had about the history of Coca-Cola, it is probably here somewhere in this book.
Now, finding it might be a different matter entirely…. This book is intense. My edition is ~500 pages of fairly small type, and this is a large-format paperback. Pendergrast is not playing here. So I totally understand why some reviewers have panned the book for its length and detail. Not everyone is looking for that; some people just want the broad strokes, and I think that’s legitimate criticism of the book. One of the reasons I’m not giving this book a full five stars is simply that, yes, it’s exhaustingly exhaustive. Nevertheless, I don’t know what I would say should be removed. It’s all germane and interesting stuff.
The genesis of Coca-Cola, of course, is probably one of the most fascinating parts of the story. So much has been mythologized (mostly by the Company itself), so Pendergrast strips that away with a blow-by-blow account of who owned (or thought they owned, or claimed they owned) what pertaining to the Coca-Cola beverage and brand. His descriptions of these internecine interactions among Pemberton et al soberly reminds us that, had any one tiny thing been different, then perhaps we wouldn’t have Coca-Cola as we know it today. In its beginnings, there was nothing that special about Coca-Cola. It took the hard work of a lot of individuals over decades to build it into the behemoth soft drink it has now become.
I also really enjoyed learning about Coke’s involvement in World War II. Particularly, the way in which “Coca-Cola men” received privileged status and shipping priority because American troops were so enamoured of drinking Coke. Moreover, I wasn’t aware of Fanta’s origins as a substitute conceived by the head of Coke in Germany after the United States entered the war and the Company wouldn’t be able to ship syrup to Germany any more. The interplay between world events and Coca-Cola’s growth around the world is complex, so I just loved reading about it as Pendergrast lays it out, complete with footnotes.
As the book approaches the present day, the details become less interesting. Pendergrast focuses overly (in my opinon) on Coke’s stock price and similar, highly technical measures of “success.” Indeed, throughout the book, Pendergrast assumes a certain level of corporate knowledge (stock splits, holding companies, etc.) that the average reader might have to stretch to comprehend. There’s nothing wrong with that (I like learning new things from a book!), but I wouldn’t describe this as a “popular history.” Pendergrast really likes to get technical in the way he comments on or explains certain decisions that Coke makes. I did, however, enjoy the whole chronicle of the New Coke debacle, since that was just before my time.
The common theme throughout this book, as the title and subtitle both imply, is that Coca-Cola is inextricably linked to American identity. Yet perhaps paradoxically, Pendergrast also notes that Coca-Cola has worked hard to become “of the people” in whatever country it’s in. He chronicles the Coca-Colonization of the world, yes, and is appropriately harsh in certain moments when the Company did not act in the most upstanding of ways. Yet he also observes how Coke has always tried to fit in with the cultures it’s marketing towards, whether we’re talking the Philippines or Japan. Consequently, Coca-Cola is “the American soft drink” in the United States, but it also aims to have this oddly non-specific, localized feel the world over.
The final lesson? The Coca-Cola Company is a very unique story. Even Pepsi, which features heavily in the back half of this book, just cannot compete when it comes to Coke’s legacy and popularity as a beverage. No other brand has spread around the world in quite the same way as Coca-Cola. (A few have certainly come close—but seldom do they do it with profit margins so richly generous as a carbonated water product will get you.)
This is not a book for the faint of heart. Nor would I suggest trying to read it all in one go. If you really want to learn about the history of Coca-Cola, however, this is the book for you. Just take it slow. And, yes, I did consume a single Coca-Cola at one point while reading. (I do nominally prefer Coke to Pepsi, but these days I try not to drink much pop at all.)