There’s a noticable amount of omission going on in the Coca-Cola museum at Pemberton Place in Atlanta. A lot, in fact, if you do some digging into this history of the world’s most famous soft drinks company. Given the company’s penchant for selling itself as a family friendly brand (witness the Happiness Factory Theater on the museum tour, or learn how the Coca-Cola system “touches lives around the world through local programs and initiatives”) it’s hardly surprising that it glosses over – and more often completely ignores – some of the more sordid, unethical aspects of its past and present that seem to completely contradict the corporation’s alleged commitment to values such as “integrity”, “accountability” and “quality”.
Coca-Cola was invented by John Pemberton, a doctor who had become addicted to morphine after being wounded during the civil war, who created a coca wine in which cocaine and caffeine were the two key ingredients, which he claimed would cure headaches, neurasthenia, impotence and morphine addiction. Pemberton was perhaps one of the first to openly promote the use of cocaine as a cure for morphine addiction (psychologist Sigmund Freud would later go on to make similar claims in the early days of his career).While today it may seem a touch inappropriate to put cocaine in a soft drink, in the late 19th century cocaine-based tinctures, cough drops, beverages and all manner of other products were all the rage. Of Coca-Cola immitators alone there were dozens of brands, from Inca Cola, Celery Cola and Pillsbury’ Coke Extract to Rococola, Lambert Company’s Wine of Coca with Peptonate Iron and the direct and to the point Dope Cola. Quack cure peddlers everywhere were on the bandwagon hawking this “remarkable therapeutic agent”; Coca-Cola themselves once marketed their drink as “a most wonderful invigorator of the sexual organs.”
The removal of cocaine from Coca-Cola following cocaine’s prohibition in the early 20th century did little to diminish Coca-Cola’s popularity: by that point, the company had plenty of money to invest in advertising campaigns, fashioning itself as the caring, homely brand that consumers are presented with to this day – it’s a commonly held view that the popular image of Santa Claus as a white-bearded man in red and white clothes emerged from a Coke ad campaign in the 1930s (the accuracy of this is debatable, but it’s a piece of cultural history that the company is happy to perpetuate). By the Second World War, Coca-Cola was a truly global corporation, which posed potential problems when large markets such as Germany went fascist. How could they reconcile their “all-American” image with doing business with the Nazis and still retain that image? The simple answer? They created Fanta.
Coca-Cola’s track record since then suggests that not only do they have no qualms dealing with tyrants and human rights abusers, they actually prefer to do business with them. In India, the company drained vast amounts of groundwater for use in their operations, depriving countless thousands of locals of their only water supply and polluted agricultural land by depositing hazardous waste. In El Salvador, Coke benefits from child labour in the sugar cane fields, just one example of a pattern of exploitation of workers across the third world who find themselves not only impoverished by the low wages paid by Coke and affiliated companies, but physically threatened and sometimes killed. Whilst benefiting from prison labour in China, the corporation is happy to sit back and watch as dictatorships unleash riot police and death squads on trade unionists demanding fair and equitable pay for workers in their bottling plants. In Turkey, nearly 200 workers, including women and children were beaten badly by riot police ending what had been a peaceful sit-down protest. In February 2010 a case was filed against the company in the Supreme Court of the State of New York for further abuses elsewhere, citing, “This case involves a campaign of violence – including rape, murder, and attempted murder – against trade unionists and their families at the behest of the management of Coca-Cola bottling and processing plants in Guatemala.”
Perhaps one of the worst countries for employees of Coca-Cola and its subc0ntractors is Colombia, where the violence against trade unionists and other workers seeking to improve conditions is pervasive and, it seems, without an end in sight. Workers and unionists have been repeatedly threatened, kidnapped, disappeared, tortured and murdered by paramilitary groups with close ties to the management of Coke’s bottling plants. There is a degree of irony to this presumably not lost on the workers, in that these paramilitary groups are largely funded by Coca-Cola’s original “secret” ingredient – cocaine. Needless to say, Coca-Cola has been fighting all these “allegations” in the courts and, largely speaking, finding the corrupt courts in the United States amenable to their position over and above the rights of workers in some faraway third world country. American corporations, after all, are rarely held to task for their exploitation of third world labour.
Cocaine plays a far larger role in the world economy than many realise, even to the point where collusion between major international banks and drug cartels is reported in Bloomberg. Indeed, illegal drugs are one of the largest markets in the global economy, to the point where drug money laundered through the large banks may have been pivotal to preventing a total, global economic meltdown. And that’s according to the United Nations. It raises serious questions as to where the distinction between criminal financial institutions and violent international drug cartels is drawn, and the Coca-Cola Company seems to be uncomfortable only with the attention drawn by activist groups to its association – direct or otherwise – with traffickers, death squads and other human rights abusers.
Food for thought, or have another Coke and a smile?
Keiser Report: Cocaine Makes the World Go Round:
The Coca-Cola Case: