We’ve mentioned Coca Cola a few times before, so I was pleased to see a new book was out about them, Mark Thomas’ ‘Belching out the Devil: Global adventures with Coca Cola’. I’ve always liked Mark Thomas’ brand of protest politics, investigative journalism and stand-up comedy, and his Dispatches programme was a useful summary of the case against Coke.
My first impressions of this particular book though, are two-fold: firstly, that’s a terrible name. Secondly, it’s a terrible cover. The Coca Cola logo, with its ‘dynamic ribbon’, is hugely distinctive and must be the most ripped-off logo in the world. Fertile ground for a more interesting image than Mr Thomas in a suit, raising an eyebrow and pouring a nameless black beverage away at an angle that is almost certain to splash it onto his shoes. I say nameless because the red cup has been carefully air-brushed of any possible trademarked designs, a capitulation to the lawyers that is at odds with the writing inside.
But, it’s the writing inside that counts, right? And all is well on that front. ‘Belching out the devil’ chronicles a series of journeys to various parts of the world to meet those who have experienced ‘the Coke side of life’ that the adverts don’t tell us about. There are Indian farmers with empty wells, Colombian trade unionists with collections of death threats, hassled Mexican shopkeepers who committed the unforgivable sin of stocking rival brand ‘Big Cola’ in their fridges. Thomas does a great job of portraying these characters, giving them faces and names and vividly describing their communities, interspersing their stories with his own amusing travel writing.
To set up a contrast, the journey starts in the Coke Museum, or rather ‘The Happiness Factory’, where Coke is described as “like a little bottle of sparkle-dust” and the fans come to view old adverts and buy merchandise. There are, needless to say, marked differences between Coke’s carefully managed image, and the truth of how it operates on the ground. In the following chapters Mark finds children working in plantations, cutting sugar for Coca Cola. He meets men who have been tear-gassed with their children in a peaceful protest at the Coke headquarters in Turkey, after they were fired for forming a union.
Coca Cola get the right to reply on each of these, and a pattern rapidly emerges: because Coca Cola operate a franchise system, their back is always covered. “The Coca Cola Company does not own or operate any bottling plants in Colombia” has always, famously, been their answer to accusations of union busting, even to the point where 7 union organisers were killed at one bottling plant. They are able to say the same of the bottlers in India who are lowering the water table, or the ones employing children in El Salvador. But they have a controlling stake in the bottlers. They dictate every tiny detail of the business, from uniforms to hiring and firing policies. Ultimately, the product sold has their logo on it.
As Thomas says, “no matter where the human rights abuses occurred, if it’s your name on the label then you’re responsible for sorting it out.” Unfortunately this could be said of almost every major corporation, from oil companies to high street fashion houses. Brands should not be allowed to hide behind middle men.
In the end, it’s hard to pin anything on Coca Cola. They respond to everything with carefully managed PR, always staying ‘on message’. There are legal proceedings against them in various parts of the world. They are all being stalled and dragging on. We could all get indignant, angry, and stop drinking Coke, but it wouldn’t achieve very much. Given the level of affection for Coca Cola, we’d be better off engaging pro-actively to encourage them to live up to their sunny image. And of course, Coca Cola are no better or worse than Pepsi, or any other big corporation you care to mention.
‘Belching out the devil’ is an expose of branding, of globalisation and its winners and losers, using Coca Cola as a case study. As such, despite the title and the cover, it’s rather good.