By the beginning of the 20th century, Coca-Cola were spending over USD$100,000 on advertising with annual sales hitting the 1 million gallon mark for the first time. The creative geniuses behind their advertising had introduced global brand icons such as the Coke Ladies, Sprite Boy, Santa Claus and Christmas Polar Bears, icons which influenced the childhood of many western generations.
But marketing wasn’t just restricted to magazines, merchandise and sponsorships. In 1960 creative executives in Italy came up with the idea of writing the company logo in bird seed across Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy. Well known for its number of resident pigeons in the city, the logo became quickly inundated with hundreds of birds spelling out the name COCA COLA in cooing feathers – not to mention in the stencil of crap that was left behind.
Today, the Coca-Cola Company produce 3.1% of all packaged beverages consumed throughout the world; an achievement unparalleled by any other brand in history. But to reach such lofty heights, they must have had a few stumbles along the way…
Advertising Faux Pas
In South Australia in the mid 1980s, Coca-Cola published a new advertisement with the slogan “Feel The Curves” showing the iconic shaped bottle of Coke sitting on a bed of ice. A quite unremarkable advert until people started to notice that the artist had used a touch too much creative license by subtly including the silhouette of a woman performing fellatio in the reflection of one of the ice cubes.
As risqué as the image may have been, it wasn’t the first time Coca-Cola was raked over the coals for promoting indecency. They were taken to court in 1911 under accusations that the high caffeine content of Coca-Cola induced “sexual transgressions”. The prosecution submitted into evidence the results of an experiment which fed Coke to rabbits and frogs – ironically two of the most promiscuous creatures in the animal kingdom. The results showed levels of increased sexual activity in both species. Despite a clear lack of a proper scientific process in the production of this ‘evidence’, the trial lasted a whole month amid a pantomime of claims of hearsay and jury rigging before Coca-Cola finally won.
With Coca-Cola already sold in every country in the world but two, the economic giant that is China holds the largest potential area of growth for the brand. Unfortunately, according to a recent company presentation, the average Chinese person only consumes 38 Coca-Cola branded beverages a year compared to the global average of 92 (the US average sits at 403). One potential explanation may lie in the age old problem of lost in translation. When first rendered phonetically into Chinese the pronunciation K’e K’ou K’e La translates closely to either “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse fastened with wax” [Coca-Cola Conversations article, March 06, 2008]. Quickly realising their oversight, Coca-Cola invested in the research of more than 40,000 Chinese characters to find a subtle alteration which would better suits their brand. New phonetic Mandarin characters K’o K’ou K’o Lê were quickly applied translating closer to “permit mouth to be able to rejoice” rather than anything associated with horses, frogs or wax. While the company may have lost millions on their mistake at least they weren’t alone in this. Their arch-nemesis Pepsi also fell foul of poor research after selling the slogan “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation” into Taiwan which to the Taiwanese meant that Pepsi would bring their ancestors back from the dead.
Regardless of Coca-Cola’s somewhat playful beginnings in China, according to a Bloomberg News article in November last year, the company is set to invest more than 4 billion US dollars in developing their brand in China between 2015-17.
With Coca-Cola having been developed as a direct result of regional prohibition in 1886, by the time nationwide temperance was enforced between 1920-1933, they were well placed to take advantage of a new “dry” America. What was not known was their association to one of the worst cases of toxin poisoning in US history.
In an attempt to use prohibition to their advantage, Coca-Cola launched a new type of packaging reminiscent of the foil topped Champagne bottles now illegal to sell aboard the newly dry American cruise liners. While a potentially genius idea, it bombed. The best thing to replace Champagne with, was more Champagne. And if customers couldn’t buy it on board, they would just smuggle their own on instead. This racket was made easier by the fact that once the cruise ship was outside of the maritime border known as Rum Row, they were no longer technically breaking the law, a fact which would help launch the American cruise liner industry.
For consumers in need of a stiff drink during prohibition, one of the few legitimate places to purchase and imbibe liquor onshore was the local dispensing chemist. Amongst the many high alcohol spirits sold under the guise of tinctures of medicinal benefit, there re-emerged a popular 19th century alcoholic elixir called Jamaican Ginger Extract or simply Jake as it came to be known. Later discovered to hold an alcohol-by-volume content of between 70%-80%, Jake became responsible for poisoning a recorded 15,000 people of which 500 were permanently crippled. The culprit was the addition of a cheap neurotoxin called tri-ortho-cresyl-phosphate (TOCP). Directly attacking the nerves in the hands and feet, the toxin left victims with a shuffling gait known as Jake Walk, Jake Leg or Ginger Foot. The association with Coca-Cola was discovered after investigations revealed that the majority of consumers had purchased their Jake through soda fountains inside dispensing chemists where for an additional small subsidy customers could purchase a glass of coke spiked with Jake for an added kick. The coke not only masked the impression of drinking liquor but also the nasty taste of Jake.
In 1926, when prohibition was only halfway through it’s term, recorded annual sales made from the many moonshiners, bootleggers and rum runners had topped USD$3.6 billion – an amount almost equal to the entire federal budget for that same year.
Coke in Space:
That’s right, Coke has even been into space – four times! It’s first zero gravity experience began alongside the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger on 29 July 1985. The flight mission was to test the performance of the experimental Spacelab Systems – a portable shuttle laboratory for running various tests in zero gravity.
One such test was the CBDE or Carbonated Beverage Dispenser Evaluation whose aim was to evaluate the packaging and dispensing of carbonated drinks in zero gravity. The CBD’s were comprised of canisters created by Coca-Cola and came with a price tag of USD$250,000. The quarter of a million dollar Coke can featured a unique internal dispensing mechanism, a plunger valve to activate the drinking spout and screw on safety cap – not to mention a Velcro strip to affix it to a surface. Despite leaving Earth’s gravitational field they still couldn’t escape their chief rival Pepsi who was also onboard with their own unique dispenser design. The final results of the CBD’s 8 day, 3 million mile, 127 orbit mission were recorded as a failure with the cans proving too difficult to imbibe from as the liquid and CO2 gas separated without gravity to contain it. Plus, the cans’ lack of refrigeration increased the level of fizz. More awkward was the physiological effect the drink had on the astronauts. Zero gravity increases the chance of forming burps which without the natural weight needed to help separate the liquid and gas in the stomach, the burping becomes more of a semi vomit known as wet burping. Despite this, it is recorded that the crew did enjoy playing with quarter of a million dollar floating balls of cola.
Coca-Cola’s second space flight began on 26 August 1991 but on this occasion the company collaborated with the Soviet Space Agency grabbing a ride aboard their shuttle the Energia [Энергия meaning “Energy”]. Once again experimenting with an advanced design based on the original CBD, the newly improved space can was given to the crew of the Russian space station Mir to try out. Once again Pepsi was there too ensuring they didn’t miss out on a PR event and even went one step further by filming a TV advert inside Mir at a cost of USD$5 million.
The third and fourth official Coca-Cola space flights – unofficially Atlanta High School students also sent a coke can into space in 2013 – were aboard the US Space Shuttles Discovery (1995) and Endeavor (1996). Instead of cans, this time the shuttles received an entire FGBA – Fluids Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus – or “Coke Dispenser” to you and me. According to the associated press kit the aim of the device was to “obtain fundamental data on containment, manipulation and transfer of pressurized, supersaturated two-phase fluids” while determining “if the resulting fluids can be made available for consumption without bubble nucleation and resulting foam formation” – indeed. Theses flights also saw the inclusion of both Diet Coke and Powerade into the experiment with Pepsi notably absent on these occasions. With a capacity of 1.65 litres each of both diet and full fat drinks, the unit would dispense their chosen refreshment into an FTU – Fluids Transfer Unit – or “cup” which comprised of a specially sealed plastic vessel with a tubuloid dispensing aparatus or “straw” attached; sound familiar? Despite four flights into space and millions of dollars spent on research and marketing, – Coca-Cola still failed to produce a successful zero gravity Coca-Cola dispenser. Truly, a small step back for mankind.
From a remedy for the common headache to a brand marketed by pigeons, polar bears, Chinese tadpoles and astronauts, love it or hate it that weird bubbly black liquid has arguably achieved more in 130 years than any other consumer brand in history.
As for the future of Coca-Cola…it was best stated by Company Executive Harrison Jones in 1938;
“The four horsemen of the apocalypse may charge over the earth and back again – and Coca-Cola will remain”.
[For further reading see: Coca-Cola Revealed: Part 1 – Santa, Playboy and Nazis]
- A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage – 2007
- JSTOR, Digital Library: An Outbreak of Tri-ortho-cresyl Phosphate (T.O.C.P) Poisoning in Durban, Mervyn Susser and Zena Stein – 1956
- Bloomberg News Online: Coca-Cola to Invest More Than $4 Billion in China From 2015-2017
- Coca-Cola Conversations: Bite the Wax Tadpole – Company Blog
- The Economic Times, India: Coca-Cola in Chinese is Ke-kou-ke-la
- Spotlight on the World of Coca-Cola: Export Bottle – Coca-Cola Conversations Blog
- Slate, The Undercover Economist: The Mystery of the 5 Cent Coca-Cola – Online Magazine
- Cola Fountain: Space – Coca Cola Fan Site
- My Fox Atlanta News: Students send Coke can into space
- Diamond Coke Cans: Space Can – Coca Cola Fan Site
- Kennedy Space Center’s Science, Technology and Engineering Homepage: STS-63 Press Kit
- Business Insider: Guess How Many Coca-Cola Products The Average American Drinks Per Year
- Ad Branch, Evolution of the Advertising Industry: Advertising from 1860-1900
- Snoopes, Rumor Has It: Coca-Cola rumors