Things Go Better?

A month or so ago, I started noticing big subway ads for “Coca-Cola.” I insert the quotes because I can’t remember the last time I saw that infamous font advertised anywhere that wasn’t an AMC theater.

One version of the ad shows a beautiful young couple—white, male and female, both very blond—having fun at home while holding bottles of “Coca-Cola.” The other shows the same style of couple, only Black, each with light skin that seems to match the other perfectly. The weird demographics notwithstanding, my first thought upon realizing that these ads are part of a campaign was: Who still drinks Coke?

Lots of people apparently! (I had thought the same about the eating of cottage cheese before learning that the curds and whey industry is expecting a renaissance.) In the third quarter of 2022, “Coca-Cola generated better-than-expected earnings,” the Times reported, confirming consumers’ “willingness to continue buying their favorite products despite being squeezed by higher prices at the grocery store.”

Coke’s earnings report arrived the week after a New York Times/Siena College poll showed that “more than a third of independent voters and a smaller but noteworthy contingent of Democrats said they were open to supporting candidates who reject the legitimacy of the 2020 election, as they assigned greater urgency to their concerns about the economy.”

To put this in context: Though higher prices for Coca-Cola would not stop consumers from buying the beverage, higher prices for Coca-Cola might convince them to sacrifice democracy by voting for an election denier whom they believe would hold down inflation.

Fortunately, democracy managed to squeak by for two more years on November 8. But the endurance of the Coca-Cola economy surprised me, especially in light of the bankruptcy of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, the possible bankruptcy of Twitter under the stewardship of Elon Musk, and the financial travails of Meta and Big Tech.

All these “new new things” were supposed to disrupt the legacy economy where the likes of Coca-Cola ruled the globe. And yet here’s Grandpa Coke raking in 14% more than last year largely because it continued to “raise prices even if [its] own inflation-driven costs have been covered.”

Before this new role as inflation price-gouger and before its modern business model of addicting generations to obesity-causing corn syrup drinks, Coca-Cola was reviled for pushing a neocolonial capitalism that many believed led to fascism—what Cold War era socialists called Coca-Colonization.

For me, that era was best encapsulated in a lyric from the Clash’s “Straight to Hell”: Let me tell ya ’bout your blood, bamboo kid: it ain’t Coca-Cola; it’s rice. Coke’s Latin American meddling went on into the 1980s, when the company was accused of inciting anti-union violence in Colombia. Even after the Berlin Wall came down, Coke’s corporate shenanigans included everything from propping up a Swaziland dictator to doing business in Libya under Gaddafi.

Of all the good things about analog times that the digital economy has killed, you have to wonder why the bad things like Coca-Colonization only get stronger. You have to wonder why the Western democracies that no longer look up to us as a beacon for this form of government still follow our lead when it comes to quantitative easing, venture-capital-backed businesses that never turn a profit, crypto, SPACs, and meme stocks.

It defies logic that there is still a global hunger for America’s corporate-dictated monoculture. Even our adult obsession with Halloween is making its way to the seemingly least receptive global cultures—Saudi Arabia, for instance, where the chaotic, carnival-like atmosphere that erupts on Saudi National Day now happens on October 31.

The Times’s Wesley Morris recently made what reads like an academic case that trash is America’s origin story: “Our culture has always been at its most pure when it’s in the gutter, when it’s conflating divine and ugly, beauty and base. . . . But the crude truth of trash is that we like it—to cry over, to cringe and laugh at.”

Poor countries often have no economic choice but to take American exports of plastic scrap, so it’s not surprising that they also take trash in other formats—like our megatons of CGI that crushes across movie theater trailers like the non-biodegradable quarts of Coke that fit into the AMC seat sockets.

For me, the retro feeling that the “Coca-Cola” font evokes is not “the real thing” of the circa-1971 “I’d like to teach the world to sing” commercial—the one that Mad Men mocked into the ground—but the 1964 “Things Go Better with Coca-Cola” vibe, with young folks having some good clean fun.

Maybe that’s because young people might not be cool with a company that was named the world’s leading polluter of plastics in 2021, and may in fact be miffed by unabashed greenwashing efforts like praising itself for bottles that are 25% marine plastic and sponsoring the United Nations COP27 climate summit in Egypt.

The company still pridefully claims that “ ‘Coca-Cola’ is the second-most understood term in the world behind ‘okay.’ ”

The task now is not to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, but to teach it that “Coca-Cola” is actually the opposite of “okay.” §