In 1954, when French lawmakers were voting to ban Coca-Cola as an unhealthy concoction, the mighty soft-drink company sprang into action.
The firm's traveling ambassador, James A. Farley, President Franklin Roosevelt's former campaign manager, was deployed to Paris for some persuasive hand holding. And in New York, at Farley's behest, nightclub owner Toots Shor emptied several cases of fine French wine into the sewer, declaring as news cameras clicked away, "If the French are going to ban a wholesome product like Coca-Cola, then here's what I think of their product!"
Back then, the crisis was swiftly averted and the effort to ban the world's most popular soft drink failed. But now, 45 years later -- and in a far different world of global competition and media aggressiveness -- Coca-Cola, and by association its hometown and headquarters, Atlanta, have been facing a public relations nightmare that may not be so easily forgotten.
It began June 8 when Coca-Cola received reports of an "off taste" in some of its product in Belgium, prompting the company to pull 2.5 million bottles off market shelves voluntarily, Coca-Cola spokesman Robert Baskin said. That problem was identified as a bad batch of carbon dioxide used to carbonate the drinks, and it was immediately fixed, he said.
Things accelerated from there as reports of mass nausea and vomiting poured in on June 10 -- involving as many as 200 schoolchildren and adults, who complained that their Coke cans stank -- and by June 14, the Belgian government had ordered the withdrawal of all Coke products from the country. Soon, the scare spread to France, Luxembourg, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. The company attributed the odor, Baskin said, to wood preservatives on pallets used to ship the product into Belgium from a plant in northern France.
Today, after numerous meetings and assurances, Belgian officials agreed to lift the Coca-Cola ban and allow two Belgian factories to reopen, and the stage was set for the company to begin some heavy-duty image repair. In France, a partial ban remains in effect, and Coca-Cola's plant at Dunkirk is still closed.
"The promise of Coca-Cola has always been a simple one," Baskin said, "a simple moment of pleasure, a simple moment of refreshment. We have to tell the extent to which the Belgian consumer and others think this promise has been tainted. Consumer research shows that the consumer bond with the brand is still very strong. We need to assess that over time."
Earlier, criticism of the company's handling of the situation had been widespread, including charges that Coca-Cola chairman and chief executive M. Douglas Ivester had not responded quickly enough. Then, reports commissioned by Coke suggested the panic was the result of "psychosomatic reactions," giving the impression that the company was blaming its customers. Belgium, in particular, already had been in the grip of a so-called food anxiety over possibly tainted chicken, meat and eggs; the fears may even have brought down the government of Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, who resigned last week after his coalition lost the national elections.
Suddenly it seemed as if this image-conscious company, which was born and is still centered in this equally image-conscious city, had blundered badly.
But what spawned panic and sharp criticism in Europe has been met with a stiff upper lip here in Coke's loyal hometown, where the history and development of Atlanta have been intertwined with the company for the past 100 years. Local television news programs scarcely mentioned the European fiasco after the initial outbreak, local newspaper headlines have seemed restrained, and no city leaders have anything bad to say about the company that has been Atlanta's biggest booster and benefactor for the whole of the 20th century.
Still, it has to hurt, deep down.
"In New York or in Boston, you have a bigger context, a lot of players, a lot of constituencies," said August Giebelhaus, a Georgia Institute of Technology history professor who has written and lectured about the company for years. "Coca-Cola's relative weight in Atlanta is of greater magnitude. The analogy is Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. It's sort of like God."
The soft drinks withdrawn in Belgium account for less than 1 percent of Coca-Cola Co.'s global market, which involves about 200 countries. But the world is a much smaller place now; bad news travels faster, even gleefully, when consumer giants, mega-successful American institutions such as Coca-Cola, are involved, exploding into a white-hot blaze of media attention and analyses.
Although the crisis seemed to be easing today, it appeared that company officials have their work cut out for them as they try to mend their reputation abroad.
In a letter printed in Belgian newspapers Tuesday, Ivester apologized to the company's Belgian consumers, conceding he should have spoken to them earlier and stressing that "for us, health and safety issues always come before business issues."
Exactly how poorly Coca-Cola has handled the situation is a matter of some debate.
"One of the first things that happens whenever a company is in crisis is that all the pundits come running out and say it was mishandled," said Eric Dezenhall, a crisis-management consultant with Nichols-Dezenhall Communications in Washington. "This is happening to Coke at a time when there is free-floating anxiety about the food supply generally. Along comes Coke with what is really a minor problem. Then suddenly it becomes a symbol of all anxiety about the food supply."
Dezenhall suspects that schadenfreude, a German word for what he describes as "enjoying the misery of others," is at work here in much of the media criticism: "There is something perversely enjoyable about seeing a successful company take it on the chin."
But Bronis Verhage, a marketing professor at Georgia State who is from the Netherlands and has been keeping abreast of the European media's coverage of the scare, maintains that Coca-Cola exacerbated the situation with its slow reaction.
"It spread out more than it would have had the reaction of Coke been more straightforward," Verhage said. "They have built up a very strong brand image, but I think because of their lack of strategic thinking and the reaction that should have occurred earlier, they may have wasted some of that goodwill."
At any rate, this has been a rare misstep for a company that has led the way in global marketing -- and served as Atlanta's guiding light in its struggle to emerge as an international city.
Coca-Cola was invented, as the legend goes, at Jacobs' Pharmacy here in 1886 when the druggist accidentally mixed a sugary syrup with soda water instead of plain water. Robert W. Woodruff, who became president of the company in 1923 and would prove to be one of Atlanta's most generous benefactors for decades to come, was credited with going global "long before global thinking was in vogue," according to displays at the World of Coca-Cola museum, a $14-million facility in downtown Atlanta that celebrates the soft drink's success.
As early as the 1920s, Coke became popular in European cafes, even opening a stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
What really put Coke on the international map was World War II, when Woodruff promised that every G.I. in every fighting zone in the world would be able to buy a Coke for a nickel. Portable bottling equipment, enough for 64 bottling plants, was shipped overseas, following the troops from North Africa to the Pacific theater.
"It was one of Bob's great business decisions," Giebelhaus said. "At home, they were facing problems of sugar rationing, and this was one of the wonderful times when business acumen and patriotism came together. In 1945, when World War II was coming to an end, Coca-Cola had in place bottling operations all over the world."
A famous 1950 Time magazine cover bowed to that expansion, showing a satisfied globe sipping a bottle of Coke through a straw. Today, Baskin said, more than a billion 8-ounce servings are consumed each day around the world.
Analysts both critical and sympathetic toward the company's plight are predicting that the European scare will soon fade, with minimal consequences. The company's shares were trading close to $70 before the problem started; its stock closed today at $61.75, down 87 1/2 cents. "I think in just a few weeks it will be just a bad dream," Dezenhall said.
At the World of Coca-Cola this week, no one seemed worried about the company's fate. Visitors, after paying $6 apiece, strolled through the three-story museum. Before ending at the museum store, they were treated to samples of specially flavored Coke products available around the world -- an apricot drink sold in Japan, a watermelon-flavored one sold in China, a bitter aperitif sold in Italy.
"I have no fears for Coke," said tourist Lucille Cruce of Gillsville, Ga. "They'll be around long after we're gone."
CAPTION: A Bad Taste (This chart was not available)
CAPTION: Cans of banned Coca-Cola beverages are dumped into a container at the company's depot in Evere, Belgium, on Tuesday.
CAPTION: Coca-Cola Chairman M. Douglas Ivester speaks in Belgium yesterday.