Among the more enjoyable spectacles of the age, a place of particular honor must surely be reserved for the one now taking place in Atlanta: that of the mucky-mucks of Coca-Cola attempting to grovel their way back into public esteem after the great "New Coke" caper. Having engineered one of the genuinely disastrous business decisions of recent history, they are now falling all over themselves trying to justify that decision even as they ignominiously retreat from it. For connoisseurs of corporate arrogance brought to bay, there has scarcely been a more delicious moment since J.P. Morgan suffered a midget to perch upon his knee.
From the outset it was of course nothing except a "business decision," which was precisely what was wrong with it. It was not enough for the accountants and market survey experts who now run Coca-Cola that their company was in possession of one of the few commodities that had transcended the marketplace and entered national legend, one that had actually become the truly ubiquitous representation of American values and tastes to the rest of the world. This, plus clear dominance in the soft-drink market, wasn't enough for the new entrepreneurs of Atlanta and their mouthpieces in the advertising industry; they wanted more, and they wanted to do what their surveys and polls and tests told them to do.
So blithely ignoring the immortal words of their fellow Georgian, Bert Lance -- "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" -- they highhandedly scuttled the "old" Coca-Cola and replaced it with the "new," a bland concoction apparently designed, just like its competitor Pepsi-Cola, to leave one's teeth feeling as if they'd been coated with a blanket of fuzz. This was strictly a "business decision," intended to ward off the Pepsi challenge and increase the market share held by Coke.
What the Coca-Cola panjandrums didn't reckon with, perhaps because their imaginations are insufficiently capacious to grasp the "concept" of it, is the way Americans feel about Coca-Cola. The "new" Coke tastes like Pepsi that's been left out in the sun with the cap off, but that's not really why there was such a furor over its arbitrary displacement of the "old." What made people angry was that an integral part of their lives had been removed by a gang of faceless managers and its gofers in the laboratory, a gang apparently incapable of understanding that Coca-Cola had long since ceased being a "product" and had entered the national mythology.
This isn't just gasbag newspaper talk; it's true. You can say what you will about Coca-Cola -- its "empty" calories, its potential for calamitous dental effects, its subtly addictive nature, its sappy advertising -- but you can't get around the inescapable truth that until the Atlanta geniuses deep-sixed it, there was nothing in America quite like it. To say that it had insinuated its way into the niche occupied by apple pie, baseball and Mom is no exaggeration; it was an institution that we held dear -- even those of us who drank it infrequently if at all -- and that therefore helped us define ourselves.
It was the generic name for refreshment. The public relations office of Coca-Cola spent a lot of its postage money on letters to journalists and others warning them not to use lowercase "coke" as a synonym for soft drinks of any other brand or variety. Their concern was understandable -- "Coke" is a trademarked brand name -- but so too was the journalists' error. It merely reflected the prevailing assumption that when you wanted refreshment -- cold, tangy, alluringly sweet -- you wanted, well, a coke: a lowercase drink that just happened to be, if you thought about it for a moment, an uppercase Coke.
When we took a taste of America to the boys overseas in World War II, we took them a Coke; nothing else would do. It cost a nickel and came in eight-ounce bottles made of thick green glass with "Coca-Cola," in that universally recognizable script, raised in bas relief; it had a real metal cap that you had to remove with a real bottle opener. Eight ounces was the only size until the 1950s -- here I rely on shaky memory -- when "King" Coke was introduced; the thrill of that was sublime, because it meant an extra four ounces of bliss. On the bottom of the Coke you could read the name of the city where it had been bottled; the person whose bottle came from farthest away won the game.
I learned that game in 1949. My family had moved from a suburb of New York, where we never had Coke in the house, to a small town in Virginia. Near our house was a power plant, and in that plant was -- mirabile dictu! -- a Coca-Cola machine. It was the most magical invention my sister and I had seen, and even more miraculous was that right next to it was a stack of wooden crates, filled with warm Cokes to restock it. In a Virginia summer warm Cokes were warm, but that didn't hold us back for a moment. When the power plant was empty we snuck in and treated ourselves, over and again. Bottle by bottle the supply of warm Cokes diminished, and as it did the suspicions of the foreman intensified. Eventually the culprits were found out and the crime reported to their father. The punishment was an apology, a spanking -- those were the good old days -- and isolation in our rooms. It was worth it. We had gotten our Cokes.
Can you imagine any self-respecting 7- or 9-year-old putting himself on the line like that for the "new" Coke? Of course not. It's just another junky drink in a huge display of junky drinks in the supermarket. It's just another "product," devoid of magic, mystery or history. It may well have a "secret formula," but outside the laboratories of Coca-Cola there probably isn't a person on earth who cares what it is, whereas the "secret formula" for "old" Coke was a matter for national discussion, debate and speculation; to penetrate the inner sanctum of Coca-Cola and discover it was the dream of millions, by no means all of them children.
Now they call it "Coca-Cola Classic." That's how the marketing boys in Atlanta, egg all over their faces, are trying to cover for themselves. But no matter how it tastes, the stuff in the cans that says "Coca-Cola Classic" isn't Coke. Coke is yesterday: green glass bottles, cumbersome red vending machines, businessmen who saw their customers as more than mere objects to be manipulated at whim. And like yesterday, the real Coke isn't coming back.