If you have a lot of patience, you will find some of the best news stories buried in the business section of your favorite paper. It is there that you can learn who among American's makers and marketers is getting rich, how they plan to change your life by selling you what you are supposed to want, how -- in many cases -- your government will help them do it, and what it will cost you.
The trouble is that you may have to wade through a good deal of numerical trivia to get to the nub of things, which is also the case with The Cola Wars, a tasty grab bag of a manuscript in sore need of editing. On the surface the book is the tale of a 20th-century btle for dollars between Cola-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, both of them basically flavored sugar syrup in carbonated water, and both invented by Southern druggist a long time ago. But the story is also about peoples and governments, images and cultures, egos and anxieties, with the authors not sure of which to stress and in what order. They have produced an uncertain script from a capitalist epic, whose stars are board chairmen, hucksters and lobbyists, heading a worldwide cast of millions who nurse what seems to be a basic biological thirst for sweet drinks.
Coke had the field mostly to itself, at first. It was born in 1886 as a "brain tonic," containing a shot of caffeine and another of cocaine (later outlawed) along with its kola-nut extract. Within a few decades it had outgrown a purely regional image and brought wealth to Atlanta's Asa Candler and some of his favorite Methodist charities, including Emory University. But by the late 1930s it was getting nationwide competition from Pepsi. After its creation in 1892, Pepsi had suffered two bankruptcies, but in its second resurrection it was offering "twice as much for a nickel, too" -- an irresistible lure in the Depression.
The major struggle began in the Cold War era of American business expansion. Coke widened its grip on overseas markets because it had reached World War II fighting fronts with its bottling machines, thanks to the War Department, which agreed that the drink was a morale-building symbol of The American Way. Pepsi fought back against "Cola-Colonizers" with its own growing network of global distributors, and both companies went all-out to sign up powerful, influential front men. Coke had James A. Farley as kingpin of its export operation. Pepsi retained such attorneys as Wendall Willkie,Joseph R. McCarthy, and Richard Nixon -- and reaped the reward of this last association when President Nixon, transformed from Red-hunter into father of detente, created the climate in which Pepsi was allow to bubble behind the Iron Curtain. But Coca-Cola (as traditionally Democratic as Pepsi was Republican) got its man in the White House in the person of Jimmy Carter, which was no small asset in penetrating the China market as part of the "normalization" of relations with Peking.
And what could be more normal that Chinese swigging "The Real Thing?" Or Tibetans, Taiwanese, Haitians, Guatemalans, Samoans, Ceylonese? The act of consuming what, in a pre-inflation era, someone called a "a nickel bottle of bellywash" is what links the people of rich and poor nations together, though the poor can less afford the nickel or the empty calories.
But there is more to the cola chronicle. There are the contests betwen slogans and images, and the rise and fall of health, purity, youth and vitality as advertising themes. There are the conglomerate sprawls, as PepsiCo moves into Fritos, and then, rdiating outward from the belly, into sporting goods and moving vans, while Coke jumps from orange juice to water purifiers. And the great legislative skirmishes in which the giant enemies often become allies -- to raise or lower sugar tariffs, reverse the ban on saccharin, strike down environmentalist attacks on throwaway cans and bottles, or evade antitrust restrictions on the assignment of exclusive rights and territories to favored bottlers and franchisers.
If the authors are correct, the "invisible" government plays a role, too, for they claim that the drive to make the world safe for Coke, Pepsi and other multinationals links together the corporations, the foreign policy establishment, and the CIA in significant relationships. Unfortunately, in tracing these alleged connections, they sometimes go too fast and sound like the late Senator McCarthy or like Rube Goldberg. ("Board Chairman, A, hires lawyer, B, who represents bank, C, which lends money to dictator, D, and so on.) If the job is worth doing, it is worth doing carefully, and if need be at the scrifice of other things. Otherwise we readers are like jurors in complex stockholders' suit, with no one to explain to us all those lawyer-like charts. Authors must prune and shape their material; they are gardeners, not conservationists.
What I am saying is that it is hard work to extract the essential oils and flavors from the book, which is a pity since, if its facts are substantially verifiable, it has important things to say. It also has many flashes of color, something hard to come by in corporate annals. That is why those annals are often ignored although, to a far greater extent than conventional histories and biographies, they show us how we live now and why.