By: Joe Gallagher,
ATLANTA, GA – If you order a Pepsi at a restaurant in Atlanta, your server will smile. I made the same mistake. It’s a smile that suggests I’m a naïve New Hampshire boy on the outer fringes of some conspiracy. It’s hard to find anything but Coke products in Georgia.
I spent 6-weeks in Atlanta for a marketing internship and was told repeatedly to check out the World of Coca-Cola, as if it were some Venetian Basilica. I went. The experience was so horrifying that I returned a second time with pen and paper.
In downtown Atlanta, on your way to The World of Coca-Cola, you will find Centennial Park, site of the 1996 Summer Olympics. Meh. A pathetic statue of of Pierre de Coubertin (some guy who brought the world together or something), is forgotten on the doorstep of a Coke bottle dominating the immediate skyline. As you’re drawn towards it, seemingly without transition, you’re greeted by a statue of John Pemberton (the late alchemist who created Coca Cola). He’s holding a chalice.
This was the second time I’d paid $16 for a ticket. I was corralled in metal stanchioned lines with others, as if anticipating some roller coaster endorphin release. When you first step inside, you’re standing in a room filled with television screens playing commercials and only commercials. Something amazing happens in this room: we are primed into a mindset of spectacle; we forget that the only reason we’re here is because it was something to do. In the commercial room I watched my own species taking pictures in front of these television screens. They had been trained into enjoying something they would otherwise ignore just because they paid for it. We were now paying them to view their advertising.
A girl offered to take a professional picture of me. It was uncomfortable. She gave me a card that instructed “Have a Coke and a smile” that I could use to buy a photo of the memory, as long as the Coke watermark was stained across it.
Then the doors opened. Our only option of wandering was into a red room. It was cluttered so entirely with Coca-Cola swag that there wasn’t a single place for my eyes to rest without the logo. I was one of the last ones to enter. The doors shut behind me. A tour guide with dilated pupils gave the same blurb I heard on my first visit.
“When I say “Coca” you say “Cola …Coca.”
“Cola,” my choir responded. 4 times.
“Coke.” they all said.
“COKE!” they promised.
She pointed to a few of Coke “artifacts” that we were suddenly interested in. A German child beside me repeated the words “Coca Cola” over and over. The guide spoke over a crying baby, about how we were going to learn about the “magical world inside a vending machine.”
That’s when we entered the Happiness Factory.
There is no flash photography in the Happiness Factory. An animated musical played on the gigantic screen about how to live a “happy life”. Bizarre characters with oblong bodies and warped faces sang a celebratory tune of happiness: La la la-la laaaaa. I did not want a Coke; I needed a Coke to feel whole again. I wanted to be happy like the happy things on screen.
The screen lifted, revealing a hallway lit deeply red. We walked down this dark hallway and into salvation, into a palace of fiercely uplifting colors with the same characters—in real life—that we’d just seen on screen. It was announced that the “polar bear will be taking a 15-minute break” before a sad line of children. It would seem perceptions were different than reality.
In this cathedral there were all kinds of different places to run off and pay tribute. From this point forward, the tour was free roam. I started with the secret vault, and by start I mean wait in line. Once again we were in stanchions. Behind me in line, a fat woman stood with a fatter grandson. They both held Coke bottles and grumbled about standing for the ten minutes we’d been waiting. After standing for an excruciating 600 seconds, they decided that they didn’t want to see Coke’s secret recipe “that bad” and abandoned their spot in line. I watched them walk hand in hand to the all-you-can-drink Coke room. I am not creative enough to exaggerate symbolism this vividly.
Inside we were informed that the recipe was on a piece of paper worth billions. It was the center nucleus from which this empire grew. Info was posted on the walls about hucksters that have tried to replicate Coke. But rest assured, only Coke has the authority to be Coke. The rise of these imposters peddled things “made to fool you, not please you” as early Coke advertisements read on the wall. You must find the crown stopper and see that it bears the trademark of Coke. Then and then only, it reads, are you safe from imitations. We are sometimes in danger of not drinking Coke.
“Don’t allow an unscrupulous dealer to palm off on you something “just as good as the genuine Coca-Cola,” the advert says. “It is the most delicious and refreshing of all the world’s temperance, tonic beverages and such deserves your loyal interest and patronage.”
Copycats never stood a chance. Only a Coke is a Coke, just ask Pepsi. I’d learned elsewhere that in blind taste tests, people admit to preferring Pepsi. But Coke had dominated the other four senses (La la la-la LAAAAAA) in the marketing realm. Autonomy never stood a chance.
The ceiling was mirrored. I could see us looking down on ourselves. We were packed, elbow to elbow. It wasn’t cramped because of how many, but because how fat we all were. The next compartment opened and we were bottled into a dark room with airy music. Screens enclosed on all sides. There was nowhere to divert my gaze. My eyeballs were zapped with 360-degrees of schizophrenic Coke propaganda. We were in a planetarium and our universe was Coke. With yellow-toothed smiles we looked up at all that is, was, or ever will be. Coke.
People who applaud Coke as a leading brand aren’t familiar with the term “cult.”
The screens opened to the promised secret recipe. It was a vault. It was taken on faith that that multi-billion dollar something was inside; that the ingredient, unable to be pinpointed by gas chromatography, was listed in John Pemberton’s transcendental alchemy behind those doors. We could stand near the door, but couldn’t cross the alarm-sensitive red line. The attendant reminded us that they “do have cops available.” I was so close and so far from the center, from knowing what separated them and us consumers.
People took pictures of pictures that were behind glass. The abstract concept of “refreshed” speckled every piece of advertising possible—one does not feel whole again, or new again, until they have sucked down this black syrup, again. An informative sign about Coke’s advertising reads that the “delicious and refreshing” drink becomes a part of the fabric of everyday life, and that despite trends changing, Coke is an eternal thread whose imagery reminds us that Coke is a “natural companion” to good times.
It has stitched an association to our subjective happiness. How will we ever become unsewn from it?
From 1928 to 1935, Norman Rockwell commissioned out the heart and soul of his art to create six oil paintings that Coca-Cola would slap their logo on and develop into marketing propaganda. I thought this broke my heart, until I saw the wall of “Coca-Cola Santa Claus.” My mind went careening to childhood nostalgia of magical Coke advertisements with Santa. To this day I own a deck of cards with Santa drinking a Coke on them. They had had their hooks in me from day one. In the 1930’s, Coke hired a man by the name of Harold Sundblom to depict a gaunt St. Nicholas in a more marketable fashion. Sundblom illustrated a fat, jolly, grandfatherly man drinking a Coke. He dressed that man in Coke’s red and white colors.
You can then take a tour under the carapace of our mechanical providers, seeing the “bottle works” machines. I stood dumbfounded before the teat of this leviathan: a 1,000 gallon egg sack of vague “syrup” that will find its way into the veins of Americans through 104,000 8-ounce bottles. Ambiguous syrup, the color of heroin candy caramel, is able to be whirled up at different locations without manufacturers knowing the secret ingredient. But don’t worry: “Printed on every bottle is a unique code that indicates where and when all the ingredients and the packaging were manufactured.”
Except that skeleton ingredient locked in the vault.
A Coca-Cola 2012 press release reads: “Extensive media coverage has been devoted in the past few days to some misconceptions about caramel and The Coca-Cola Company’s beverages. We want to set the record straight, and be absolutely clear: The caramel color in all of our products has been, is and always will be safe, and The Coca-Cola Company is not changing the world-famous formula for our Coca-Cola beverages. Over the years, we have updated our manufacturing processes from time to time, but never altered our Secret Formula.”
What the actual fuck is in what I’m drinking?
Then I was brought to a third theatre. The show promised to get to the bottom of the drink’s cryptic center. We waited in metal stalls and wore cardboard glasses. Televisions would ask, “What makes Coke a Coke?”
“You,” Televisions would answer. “All happiness and memories are associated with Coke.”
“There is nothing that doesn’t go with a Coke.”
“Everyone agrees that Coke tastes great.”
We were being hypnotized.
The stall doors opened and we stepped into our assigned rows of seats. Then complete blackness. In the oblivion, the familiar sound of a Coke bottle opening. Our seats lurched back and forth. Colors whirred past us. Lights strobed in all different colors. Sprays of water and air blasted us from unseen places. It was such a complete sensory lobotomy that not one but two families got up and left due to nausea. The film did not impart what the secret ingredient was; instead the giant characters onscreen looked down through a magnifying glass and told us that “you” are what makes Coke great. Coke is me. I am Coke.
They promised me that each Coke was as good as the next, and the next.
Finally I made it to the “Taste it” factory to receive the fizzy Eucharist. It was now time for the becoming. Eternal fountains ran black with tonic and we could drink as much as we wanted. Pregnant women drank deeply of it for their unborn children. Parents guided their children to the fountains and carried on the tradition which predestines us for diabetes. I watched them shouldering in for a sip from the fountain and was reminded of baby pigs sucking on their mother. Except they were all swallowing something worse than pig milk, they were swallowing something that can take the rust off a car battery.
One the way out, you may take a complimentary Coke off the rotating belt, which many of the children grabbed at with bloated hands. We marched into the gift shop in a peptic stupor. It was time to prove our loyalty. We must drape ourselves in the vestments of Coca-Cola and buy shirts proclaiming “I drank a Coke” across our chests, or receive free stickers on our foreheads—as many laughing children did—you heard me correctly, they were slapping their logo on children’s heads and sending them on their way. You could even purchase signs with the commandment “Drink Coca-Cola.”
We branded zealots walked out the backdoor single file, wearing the Templar red and white of Coke paraphernalia. We marched with our tote bags past the unenlightened waiting to enter the facility in stanchioned lines. It felt like a lifetime ago that I stood there. We walked past vendors at concession stands, shouting to sell us drinks from Coca-Cola carts. The police officers were drinking it. All around us in Centennial Park, the red glow of vending machines beckoned from the perimeter, all unanimously Coke, with the exception of Dasani which is owned by Coke. They have bottled and branded the essence of life from the natural world and are selling it to us.
From wherever you stand in Centennial Park, you can see the Atlanta skyline fall away in the northwest to where a stoic giant stands alone. Its windows are not clear like the other buildings’. Instead the sun flares off their blackened surfaces like a many-eyed monster. The Coca-Cola Headquarters stands, if it could, with arms crossed, observing from the distance. In the night even this titan may disappear into the sky, except for one, dominating detail: the glowing red cursive of Coca-Cola stitched through the heavens.