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Sunday, July 29, 2007

RESEARCH QUESTION: In May, Atlanta's World of Coca-Cola moved from its old spot near chintzy Underground Atlanta to new digs beside Centennial Olympic Park. But even though the new World of Coke has double the space, a sleeker design and a nice new location next to the Georgia Aquarium, we still wondered: Why should we pay -- pay! -- to see a museum-size marketing ploy? Doesn't Coke bombard the entire planet with ads for free?

METHODOLOGY: We logged on to the World of Coca-Cola Web site about 9 a.m. on a June Tuesday in Atlanta. Admission is timed to regulate crowds, so we picked the 1:30 p.m. slot, purchased a $14 ticket ($15 at the ticket office) and waited for the printable version to appear in our e-mail. It didn't, due to a computer glitch. No big deal: We caught the subway to the Peachtree Center station, walked 10 sweaty minutes and quickly collected our tickets from the office. Four hours later, we took the train home.

RESULTS: The beginning was all we feared. The entry "loft" offered multinational memorabilia and a pastiche of old Coke radio spots. It was mildly interesting, but the host's pep-rally shtick turned us off. Luckily, things improved after we were funneled into a movie theater to see the eight-minute "Inside the Happiness Factory." Despite ourselves, we smiled at the surreal Coke-factory-in-the-clouds (familiar from TV ads) and laughed at the witty, documentary-style interviews with bizarre, animated "employees."

The theater spit us into an airy central atrium where kids posed with a wonderfully expressive Coke polar bear set up like a shopping-mall Santa Claus. Next stop: "Milestones," an exhibit on Coke's company history. It sounds dry, but such artifacts as a Victorian-era soda counter and a Coke dispenser used in space illustrated a surprisingly interesting story: how an Atlanta pharmacist's 1886 invention became a global brand before globalization was even a word.

Duly educated, we headed to Bottle Works, a working bottling operation. Conveyor belts whipped eight-ounce bottles through gleaming, stainless steel machines, over our heads and into the ceiling. The effect was part industrial plant, part Willy Wonka factory.

Upstairs, another theater cycled through national and international TV ads, and a pop culture exhibit showcased Coke-themed artwork by Andy Warhol and Howard Finster, among others. More fun was the computer that allowed us to make, then e-mail, our own "artwork."

Our favorite part of the World of Coke was the "4-D" theater that splashed us with water, blew "wind" around our legs and shook us in our seats. Starring a scientist on a flying skateboard, the movie's "search for the secret formula" used Coke's worldwide reach as an excuse for a world tour. We paddled down an African river, pedaled through an Asian market and -- entirely gratuitously -- ripped down a mountain with a snowboarder.

The finale was the space-agey tasting room, where we slurped Coke products from around the world. We liked Fanta Blackcurrant from Taiwan and Inca Kola from Peru. But how Italians stomach the awful, citrus-flavored Beverly remains a mystery.

CONCLUSION: Sure, the new World of Coca-Cola is a 60,000-square-foot commercial. But it's a really, really fun commercial. Rather than simply advertising Coke to visitors, it celebrates advertising as the key to Coke's success and its iconic status. Of course the messages are ridiculous: We learned that not only is Coke the perfect taste, it is also a form of bottled happiness, a magic elixir that binds all the world's cultures in our common humanity. There's little mention of nutritional issues, or labor problems at Third World bottlers, or the disaster that was "New Coke." Did we expect that? Of course not. But we really didn't expect to leave humming "I'd like to buy the world a Coke," either.

-- Ben Brazil

The World of Coke (121 Baker St.) is within walking distance of two stations on the MARTA rail system: Peachtree Center on the north/south line and CNN Center on the east/west line. Info: 800-676-2653, http://www.woccatlanta.com.

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