Woke Coke: should the fizzy-drinks giant defend American democracy?

In late March a curious crisis enveloped the world’s most beloved carbonated drink. Republicans in the state of Georgia passed the Election Integrity Act, a law that implements a wide range of voting restrictions that run just short of literacy tests and poll taxes. The restrictions seem designed to suppress Democratic voters, in particular black ones. President Joe Biden called the law “un-American”. Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, said it was “a redux of Jim Crow”.

Some corporations struck back. Major League Baseball withdrew its all-star game from the state. More than 100 companies, including Amazon, Starbucks and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, signed an open letter opposing attempts to limit democratic participation.

Coca-Cola, which has its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia’s capital, had difficulty taking even a minimal stand. When the restrictive bill was being debated, James Quincey, Coke’s laconic, British-born chief executive, could only muster words of general support for voting rights. To be fair, all companies must balance making a profit with sensitivity to the cultural moment. But Coca-Cola has a particularly tricky needle to thread, because nothing is more on-brand for Coke than democracy.

Over decades and across continents, Coca-Cola has seduced populations with sweet nothings about liberty (with a helping of caffeine addiction and tooth decay on the side). Ideological conflict has provided a stimulating backing-track to the promotion of fizzy drinks. The second world war was just one example of a successful marketing stunt. “Coca-Cola, the drink that fights back”, read one ad from 1943. When the Berlin Wall fell, Coca-Cola was on hand to raise a glass.

But Coke hasn’t always been granted a warm welcome. Sceptics regard it as a tool of American cultural imperialism. French communists in the late 1940s had recently endured one invasion and feared another in the form of what they dubbed “cocacolonisation”. In an alliance of convenience with winemakers and juice-manufacturers, who feared their market share was under attack, they vilified Coke as “poison”. Italians had a similar aversion, referring to the drink as Coca-Colèra and Coca-Colitis.

In America Coca-Cola is in essence the national drink. But when the company’s boss gave such a muted response to the proposed law, Twitter sniped, sternly worded letters flew and boycotts started. Celebrities, including actors such as Mark Ruffalo and Alyssa Milano, signed yet another open letter, calling on Quincey to get serious. Finally, once the bill was passed, Quincey turned up his indignation a notch. “I want to be crystal clear,” he said on March 31st. “The Coca-Cola Company does not support this legislation, as it makes it harder for people to vote, not easier.” He called the new laws “unacceptable”.

Briefly, the world seemed to make sense again. Far-right Republicans were trying to suppress the vote. And Coca-Cola, though staying put in Georgia for business as usual, was ladling out blandishments consistent with more than a century of marketing campaigns.

Then the free-for-all started. No sooner had Quincey spoken than he was assailed from the right. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, derided Coke as a “woke corporate hypocrite”. Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, piled in and accused Coke of throwing in its lot with the “radical left”. “Maybe Mr Quincey can be forgiven,” Cruz said, playing to the cheap seats. “He’s British, and they’ve been confused about Americans since the Boston Tea Party.” Cruz vowed to refuse all donations from corporations because, he argued, big business in America is chasing “points on woke Twitter” rather than profits.

And so a company that produces some 3m tonnes of plastic a year was smeared as too progressive. It was hard to foresee such a twist. Coca-Cola has hardly lifted a finger for leftist values. For the company to be rejected by the party of big business almost defies belief. Yes, watching Republicans turn on democracy has been a bitter pill to swallow but this is much weirder. Woke Coke!

Yet it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that Coke has ended up here. For, from its earliest days, Coca-Cola has muddled through tortured questions of race and democracy.

Coca-Cola was created in 1886 by John Pemberton, a chemist and retired Confederate colonel who had been gored in the chest with a sabre at the battle of Columbus, one of the last clashes of the American civil war. Pemberton’s story is more demoralising than most tales of grievous wounds sustained in hopeless conflicts.

The battle of Columbus, fought in April 1865, was entirely pointless. The primary Confederate army had surrendered a week earlier in Virginia but because the news hadn’t reached Georgia, the city was laid to waste.

Pemberton treated his painful wounds with morphine. The drug turned him into a nodding doper, so he sought uppers to clear the fog. After years of trial and error, he found that some 9mg of cocaine extract dissolved in a kola-nut tonic hit the spot.

He went on to market Coca-Cola to heartbroken veterans and neurotic Southern ladies as a “cure for all nervous affections – Sick Head-Ache, Neuralgia, Hysteria, Melancholy, etc.” Even with his cocaine panacea, he died two years after selling the first glass: the Coca-Cola Company was incorporated without him, in 1892. At the beginning of the 20th century cocaine was phased out and the chief stimulant became caffeine.

Pemberton had the right instincts about the market for his concoction. For over a century Coke has served its original purpose: to alleviate pain, boredom, misery and moral failure. As one slogan goes, “Coke revives and sustains”.

The platitudes and stimulants of Coca-Cola might seem like a coward’s treatment for the trauma and sin involved in fighting to maintain slavery. In an ideal world transgressions are atoned for and rectified, rather than sugar-coated. But moral rigour is hard to come by. Distraction mixed with sweetened water goes down much more easily.

Some white Southerners took another approach to memorialising the civil war: fighting for white supremacy as a cherished regional tradition, still worth dying for. Possibly, just possibly, it was better to drown your sorrows in Coke. Theodore Dreiser was on to something when he argued for the psychological benefits of rank commercialism in 1900: “If it were not for the artificial fires of merriment, the rush of profit-seeking trade, and pleasure-selling amusements...we would quickly discover how firmly the chill hand of winter lays upon the heart.”

In the case of Coke, the artificial fires of merriment might even engender a measure of solidarity. One great lesson of capitalism is that people are forced to cultivate empathy for others when they’re trying to sell them something. In 1948 Coca-Cola hired a famous public-relations executive called Moss Hyles Kendrix to create ads for Coke that depicted black students and models in family settings, turning them into sought-after consumers of soft drinks rather than mere servers of them. Coke has cultivated black consumers ever since. It’s hardly activism, but it’s not nothing.

Now Coca-Cola has an opportunity to align its brand with democracy in America just as it did in places like East Germany and the Baltic states at the end of the cold war. Perhaps Dasani, its bottled-water division, could set up trucks on street corners on election days, refreshing Georgians on the way to the polls. In what way is this radical? Because the new laws are so restrictive that they criminalise giving water to people waiting to vote. To follow the letter of the law, Coca-Cola would need to erect stalls 150ft from polling sites. But its liquid presence would make a statement (and hey, why not include Sprite and Fanta too?).

More generally, Coke should use its expertise at flogging democracy to the world to sell it back home. It can call on a globe’s worth of successful marketing campaigns: the Play Fair campaign it used in Italy to encourage fans of opposing football teams to share a Coke; the “small world machines” it installed in India and Pakistan in 2013, which allowed people on either side of the border to communicate with one another (and get a free drink); the Rainbow Nation campaign it used in South Africa in 2014 when it made actual rainbows appear in the Johannesburg sky to celebrate 20 years of democracy.

This is more than corny. It’s corn-syrupy. But that’s Coca-Cola. Poor old slashed and addicted Pemberton needed something to raise his spirits after the civil war and this is what he came up with. Now Coke is so awake it’s woke. After nearly a century of selling America abroad, it’s time for Coca-Cola to sell America to America.

This piece originally appeared in The Economist.