Wonderful World (of Coke)?

It’s taken me a while to get around to posting this one up. Part of the reason has been a certain unease about the topic. Beyond that I’ve been a bit rushed off by feet with a whole raft of dry-runs for our upcoming performance monitoring – the Research Excellence Framework – and have been trying to get a hold of all the relevant photos…

No matter. Last September I went to the States, Atlanta, Georgia, for a conference at Georgia Tech. It was exciting, being my first trip Stateside, and I even badgered a colleague into photographing the taxi trip from the airport, as I sat overawed by the looming skyscrapers and multi-lane freeway:

Photo: Maria Nedeva

I settled very quickly into the long, mid-30s days of predictable blue skies, but unwittingly got sunburnt…

Photo: Maria Nedeva

The TV news was totally hectic. 15-20 minutes could pass after getting out of the shower in the morning before I realised I was hypnotised by a combination of HD presentation, stupendously bright lights and garish colours, excesses of makeup and oversized hair-does. To this day I’ve never seen more enthusiastic reporting of rush-hour traffic, complete with 3D graphics:

My first goal was to sample as much ‘American’ food as I could. I got off to a great start by trying a donut-burger (a donut in place of the bun) at Cypress Street Pint & Plate. I also wanted to try diner food, but failed. The closest I got was a handful of dollar-burgers at the nearby drive-in, Checkers:

Photos: Maria Nedeva; also pictured, Adbullah Gok

Despite being only two or three blocks direct walk from an international academic conference centre/hotel, the staff at this Checkers had never heard a British accent (let alone the Turkish and Bulgarian ones of my colleagues!). That was a nice moment but made me realise few international visitors seemingly stray far from the immediate surroundings of their particular event.

I also got to see the lovely Piedmont Park, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta (from outside), the home of Gone with the Wind author, Margaret Mitchell (from a distance), some wonderful buildings (new and old), and much of the very impressive Georgia Tech campus including their range of sumptuous GT-branded apparel:

Photo: Maria Nedeva

After learning Atlanta was also the home of Coke and its quasi-museum/propaganda-powerhouse, the World of Coca-Cola I was rather conflicted. I dislike most of Coke’s drinks (and, boy, are there a lot of them, as I found out in the place’s tasting room!). I’ve also heard about Coke’s apparent water-related practices around the world (you can get a rough idea of what I mean from this academic article, this website, this piece in the Ecologist, this local Indian news story, this collection of concerns, and this blog post).

Getting there was an experience. It didn’t look far on the map so a colleague and I decided to walk. We passed a group of arguing homeless people then headed into this deserted, rubble-strewn underpass:

Pictured, Andrew James

Not exactly a place designed for walking. Once there, the World of Coke provided an immediate assault on my senses. The colour red, predictably, was everywhere:

Source: World of Coca-Cola website

The atmosphere was odd, given my attitudes to Coke. Our host’s opener, clearly intended to rouse and rally the group of visitors who had come from around the States and around the world, was ‘The one thing that unites us is our love of Coke!‘ I felt truly out of place at that point! I also found the ambiguous juxtaposition of ‘facts’ and marketing very disconcerting (I can imagine lots of ‘disclaimer’ plaques if the place was in the UK).

My colleague and I were able to pick up some interesting titbits. First, unbeknownst to me, Coke operates as a franchise of somewhat independent bottling/carbonated water operations that get supplied with the concentrated syrup(s). This may complicate tackling any apparently dubious water-related practices of overseas bottling/water operations. Second, Coke was operating in Germany during World War II – according to an archive photo of a delivery truck we saw. I’d like to know more about this. Third, after sitting through a surreal ‘Happyfication’ film, and being subjected to a ‘history’ of Coke’s advertising, I wondered just how far a company can take its claims for what its brand has supposedly achieved (increased world unity, and being at the leading edge of various social movements during the 20th century seemingly being among Coke’s current claims).

There were various other insights about technology and design patents, and a fascinating exhibit on the 1985 introduction of New Coke and the subsequent customer backlash. The best part of this was a marketing strategy document that likened the launch of New Coke to a WWII allied campaign. Mind-blowing in both inappropriateness and excess, truly.

We wrapped-up our visit with probably the strangest souvenir photo I currently have in my collection:

Also pictured, Andrew James (NB: unintended comic position of bear’s hand)

A few days later we were ready to return to the UK. I had another novel and unsettling experience, of seeing lots and lots of US troops ready to be shipped off for service in the Middle East, as we waited for our return flight:

Photo: Evgeny Klochikhin

This brought home the human reality of the Iraq and Afghanistan military actions for me in a way that years of news coverage had completely failed to. It also topped off a very diverse first-ever trip to the States that was intriguing and disorientating in equal measure…

Duncan Thomas


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