The Coke Side of Life


Arts & Culture

“Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” —Andy Warhol

Evel Knievel on the set of Viva Knievel, 1977.

Coca-Cola is the brand par excellence, the marca di tutti marche, the brand the other brands dream about being (even though the brands never sleep). Nothing else is even close. When it comes to what a brand is, Coke, as they say, is it. According to the branding consultancy Interbrand, Coke has a “brand value” of seventy billion dollars, which is twelve billion more than its nearest competitor, IBM. That’s a strange measurement, brand value, because it takes several nebulous things into consideration, including probably love. While many people are fond of Coke, some of them to the point of addiction, who even likes IBM?

Coke’s status is not merely economic or pop cultural or emotional or psychological. Coca-Cola transcends those categories to compete in the broader realm of speech, of monosyllables. We’re told that Coke is the second most recognized word in any language, after okay.

There are 6.9 billion people in the world, and according to The Coca-Cola Company they drink 1.6 billion Cokes a day. I don’t have the figures for this, but it may be that right now the only thing people on this planet are doing more than breathing is drinking Coke. There may be more people drinking Coke this very minute than sleeping. There may be more people drinking Coke than awake.

A member of the Coca-Cola pep squad in Casablanca, Morocco, wearing custom-made happiness slippers, 2010.

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the invention of Coca-Cola by the Georgia pharmacist John Stith Pemberton (who made the elixir with cocaine in it as a substitute for the morphine he craved), The Coca-Cola Company has partnered with the boutique publisher Assouline (they actually have boutiques) to publish a book called Coca-Cola. Last Tuesday, Assouline and Coca-Cola threw a party for the book, which is really two books, one a special edition that goes for $650, the other a trade edition that costs ten times less. To accompany the book, the two companies also launched an iPad app that retails for $4.99.

They debuted these items at the IAC Building, on the corner of West Eighteenth Street and the West Side Highway, the Frank Gehry–designed office tower that looks like a pile of Lexus fenders and features a hundred-foot video screen, the world’s largest, in its first-floor gallery. Kelly Bensimon, the ex-model featured on the reality-TV show The Real Housewives of New York, and Whitney Port, a cast member of another reality series, The Hills, acted as “VIP attendees” at the party. They mingled with the guests in the same hairdo, resembling plastic Coke bottles, the kind that makes a crinkle noise if you squeeze them when they are empty, not the iconic glass bottles that are curvaceous and pleasant to hold.

At the open bar, bartenders served special Coke-based drinks in real glasses. One was made out of popcorn-and-butter-infused brandy and Coke, an off-putting combination featuring a spirit I wish I’d never heard of. This drink sought to connect the common with the classy in a way antithetical to the very nature of Coke, and underscored the questionable aspects of a party dedicated to a $650 book about a product that costs a dollar and symbolizes America-the-classless-society, an aspect of the brand the book hits hard. They called this cocktail a Filmograph Redux, not exactly a name that will make people forget rum and Coke. They did not serve a Lindsay Lohan, which is the exact same drink as some other drink, I can’t remember which, except it has Coke in it.

Sammy Davis, Jr., on the set of Porgy and Bess, 1959.

Assouline is the favorite publisher of people who stack their books horizontally, people who need big, heavy books to make sure their tables don’t float into space. As an Assouline product, the book announces that it is not another of the millions of Coke collectibles found at flea markets and on eBay, many of which were manufactured under a regime of heavy-duty, middle-American nostalgia and feature images of Santa Claus and polar bears. The Assouline version of Coke is post–Mad Men but pre-Reagan, something from a time before air travel was torture and before there was Diet Coke (a pure product of the Reagan era). The Warhol Coke-bottle painting that graces the cover of the $650 edition takes us back to a time before merchandising and intellectual property issues dominated corporate thinking. Could an artist like Warhol use the same imagery today without getting sued or having to cut the brand in on the profits? Could he do it without clearing permissions or preselling it as brand integration?

Coke is proud of Warhol. The book quotes from a statement of his, which repeats the word Coke a Gertrude Stein–ish eight times: “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” The bum may or may not know it. I couldn’t ask him because he wasn’t invited to the party.

The book quotes Henry Miller, too. In The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Miller wrote that “without a Coca-Cola life is unbearable.” Yet that’s part of a longer passage, a list that indicts the nightmarish America Miller found when he returned after years abroad. Here are a few other things he lists with Coca-Cola: “internal douche treatments, lousy photography, institutes of religion, faces lifted, warts removed, flatulence dissipated, business improved, limousines rented.” You should know better than to use something from a book called The Air-Conditioned Nightmare to bolster your brand. Clearly, Assouline and Coke don’t expect anybody to read that book. I’m positive they found that quote by searching Google for Coke quotes.

Many interesting things have been said about Coke that the book leaves out, though perhaps not as willfully. Where’s the quote from Slavoj Žižek explaining the undefined “it” that Coke says it is? For Žižek, as for the early Coke executive Robert Woodruff, who said that “Coca-Cola should always be within an arm’s reach of desire” (that’s in the book), Coke represents the eternally unsatisfied emptiness we seek to fill with something ungraspable, something Coke made eminently graspable in the form of its perfectly curved bottle, which was designed so you could recognize it in the dark by touch. The “contour bottle” debuted in 1916, the same year Einstein proved via the general theory of relativity that space was curved. A significant coincidence, I think. Other famous commenters on Coke who are MIA include Billy Wilder, who made a whole Mad Men–era movie about selling Coke behind the Iron Curtain, and Jean-Luc Godard, who mentioned or showed Coke in almost every movie he made in the 1960s. If Coke can claim Warhol and Miller for their own, surely they will absorb others.

These days the Coke commercials on TV feature sleepwalkers with subconscious urges to drink Coke and people who see the Coke curve everywhere they look. Coke is the Master Controller of desire in these ads, a Big Brother who knows our urges better than we do. Interactive Internet versions of their TV spots suggest we go to work for them: “See what it’s like to be a worker in the Happiness Factory and help deliver bottles of Coke!” Another recent campaign features animated bugs, suggesting Coke has saturated humanity and now wants to go after the insect market. Which is kind of like trying to find people willing to buy a $650 book about soda. At the party I asked the app designer who he thought would actually buy this special edition. “Mostly Coke execs,” he said.

A. S. Hamrah is a writer living in Brooklyn. He writes film criticism for n+1.