“Can’t beat a good ad campaign”, The Australian, 19-20 Mar, 1994.

Coke Was It

Ross Harley

Delicious. Refreshing. Ice cold. Coca-Cola was always more than a bubbly tooth-rotting soft drink. It is one of the most potent signs in our international lexicon of products.

Like most soft drinks, Coke is all image and words. OK, so it’s actually 99% sugar and water with a secret formula thrown in, but who really cares about that? When we buy a Coke we guarantee our place in a corporate communion that hooks us into the only universal religion of the twentieth century: immaculate consumption.

Same the world over since it was first bottled and shipped in 1915, Coca-Cola is a magical elixir of lifestyle. At the end of the millennium, it can now actually make a legitimate claim to history; maybe even culture, who knows. Unlike McDonald’s, Coke is no Johnny-come-lately. Four generations of sickly sweet images of smiling Americans twisting frosty bottles tops may have been joined by more contemporary versions of happy-face. But the message remains essentially unchanged.

Coke adds life to universal culture. We hold this truth to be self- evident because we’ve pushed so many Coke signs on doors, sped past so many giant billboards, and lived through each new advertising campaign that Coke is indeed inseparable from life. You can’t beat it, even if you wanted to. Pop the cap, pull the ring and fill your body with a nostalgic buzz. Trust its quality. Hey, it’s “classic”. Like Beethoven, Bronte and fifties Hollywood, Coke has become a standard, a measure of banality in a mass produced world.

That’s why the Coca-Cola bottle is one of the most powerful design objects of this century. Subject of innumerable art works and strategic placements in film and television programs, the Coke bottle is an instant symbol of the now not-so-great American way. Like Mickey Mouse born of the same era, Coke harks back to less troubled times when consumption was safe and fun for all the world to enjoy. Now we have cans and two litre plastic bottles, but the image of the old bottle is still incorporated into the packaging design.

Although some people have tried to claim the Coke bottle as their own, it’s actually a perfect instance of anonymous design. Initially sold at soda fountains in America for the first 30 years, the familiar glass container was made for the licensee who obtained the rights to package and ship the popular elixir around the world. The bulbous bottle signified Coke from 1915 until 1955, when American design guru Raymond Loewy “refined” it. Along with thinning out its curves, Loewy characteristically claimed total responsibility for the famous icon.

But that’s not the whole story. Coke has always been about marketing, of winning customer loyalty through sheer persistence. Pure advertising. Even the distinctive trademark was in fact not so special when it was first created. Designed by one of the accountants who worked for the original Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, the nineteenth-century Spencerian script (very popular at the time) betrays the drink’s medicinal origins as an elixir.

Everybody loves this story. Like other tonics, Coca Cola was originally sold as a medicinal syrup. Nowadays we might quaff Lucosade or Ribena for our pharmaceutical kicks, but at the turn of the century Coca-Cola was the thing for headaches and hangovers. It wasn’t so special when compared to competitors such as Moxie and Pepsi-Cola. But it did contain traces of cocaine. Hence the popular equivalence of Coke and coke, which continues to the present. Of course the company denies that there was cocaine in the drink they finally marketed, but it’s part of the myth regardless. People love wondering what’s behind the name. It’s oh so thrilling to think what *might* have been in the tonic. Who knows, maybe there’re still traces of the stuff in today’s Coke?

As unlikely as this is, other competitors who tried to capture the flavour and appeal of Coke could never allude to such a past. Pepsi, still the company’s fiercest rival, was also born out of drug store culture. Invented by another southern chemist, this fizzy beverage aimed at the stomach rather than the head. They took the Pepsi out of dyspepsia.

How much this has to do with the present cola wars is hard to tell. But Coke was definitely the most successful in its corporate plan to rule the soft drink world. By the end of WWII, the coca- colonialisation of the world was complete. In the postwar era the famous bottle and script began to appear in Arabic, Cyrillic and Japanese versions. It didn’t matter much what was in the bottle. Coke was selling an image of American life, instantly recognised by zillions of thirsty people and hungry imitators. It’s simple really. Coke is an empire built on the foundations of myth, promotion and advertising.

So when in 1985 the Coca-Cola Company tried to make their black gold even better than the real thing, they lost it. Badly. Taunted by the mid-eighties Pepsi challenge commercials (where blindfolded punters would take the taste test and invariably choose Pepsi) Atlanta executives thought they could win back the Pepsi generation by announcing a new Coke formula. Pepsi of course was thrilled to the max. They knew the war was one of image, not substance. As one loyal customer put it, “changing Coke is like God making the grass purple or putting toes or teeth on our knees.”

Hence all the humble pie and subsequent invention of Classic Coke. Now the customer can again have the real thing. Always.