Harry Potter, The Olympic Torch and Coke

by Michael I. Niman
a version of this story originally appeared in ArtVoice January 17th, 2001

On New Year’s Eve people in Buffalo, New York, like people in hundreds of other American cities, gathered to participate in First Night celebrations.  The Buffalo revelers, however, quickly found themselves awash in Coca Cola and Chevrolet paraphernalia.  Buffalo had the honor of hosting the Olympic Flame for New Year’s Eve and it would soon be arriving – and true to the form of 21st century corporate American culture, no civic event, not even the cross-country Olympic torch relay, could go unsponsored. 

As the torch approached, the crowd cheered wildly, waiving little plastic American flags.  In the breeze, the flags turned from red, white and blue, to yellow – their backsides being yellow, emblazed with a distinct Chevrolet logo. Chevy is shameless.  But why should be we surprised?  Their parent corporation spent millions of dollars and countless years lobbying against federal safety, emissions and environmental regulations for their gas guzzling behemoths. They allegedly underwrote the destruction of mass transportation in the 1940s and 50s, and have been spending the last ten years convincing the Viagra crowd they they’re incomplete human beings unless encased in a 5,000 pound steel pig.  Cashing in on the mantra of so-called patriotism, even if it means pissing off the anti-flag desecration yahoos in Congress, is business as usual for Chevy. 

Coke’s Flame Snakes Across America

And then there’s Coke.  They pumped the crowd with flags as well, celebrating Coke’s celebration of the Olympic flame. Of course the need to sponsor the flame is ridiculous.  If need be, I could have strapped it to my car and driven the damn thing to Utah myself – all without giving out self-congratulatory Mike Niman flags and what not.  But sponsorship isn’t about covering the cost of moving the actual flame.  It’s about moving Coca Cola, both as a liquid and as a brand, to the forefront of the global culture factory as this sorry little parade snakes its way across the American heartland.

As the flame arrived, Buffalo’s mayor, Tony Masiello, took the stand to thank all those “who made this event possible.”  Of course there’s the usual cast of suspects to be thanked.  Our public servants are all doing their jobs – yada yada. But the star of the night, the guest of honor at First Night, the man to whom the mayor kowtowed with adoration, was the rep from Coca Cola. I need to stop here and explain one thing:  Buffalo Bills, snow and rust aside, this is still a major American city – not a windswept Great Plains hamlet where a visit from a multinational deity is considered a cultural event. I was embarrassed for the mayor. 

Child Abusers

Days before the mayor’s genuflection to the gods of Coca Cola, Multinational Monitor magazine named Coca Cola as one of the 10 worst corporations in the world.  The Monitor was upset, among other things, at Coke’s role as a child predator.  During the last 20 years, teenage boys have tripled their soda pop consumption while cutting back on more healthy drinks such as milk. Girls doubled their consumption. They went from drinking twice as much milk as soda pop, to drinking twice as much soda pop as milk.  Unlike milk, water or juice, soda pop contains 10 teaspoons of sugar per 12 once can.  That’s a full day’s USDA recommended daily allowance (RDA) of refined sugar. The result of all this “liquid candy,” according to representatives of organizations such as the Harvard School of Public Health, the George Washington University Medical Center and the Committee for Science in the Pubic Interest (CSPI), has been a two-fold increase in teenage obesity during the past two decades.  Obesity eventually leans diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease.  Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and acesulfame-K present in “diet” soda pop have also been associated with a host of other illnesses ranging from neurological disorders to cancer. 

Critics have also charged Coca Cola as purposely using caffeine, a mildly addictive stimulant, to spur consumption – a charge that is backed up by the fact that six of the seven most popular brands of soda pop contain caffeine.  Coca Cola began using caffeine after their original peppy ingredient, cocaine, was outlawed.  The increase in juvenile caffeine consumption has been associated with a host of behavioral problems suffered by children.

Soda pop consumption is also associated with osteoporosis and the occurrence of kidney stones.

Harry Potter Whoring for Coke

The complaint against Coke stems not from the fact that their product is unhealthy, but that they specifically market their toxic mix to children both in the US and abroad.  Most recently, they paid an estimated $150 million for the rights to use Harry Potter imagery in their advertising and promotions.   Coke calls the campaign, which mixes contests and games with advertising and web images, “Live the Magic.”  Critics argue that the magic of Harry Potter is being prostituted to manipulate Potter’s young fans.  In the end, Coke’s campaign strips away the innocence of childhood icons and adds to the alienation of a generation betrayed even by their imaginary heroes. 

Coke uses real heroes as well to pimp their products.  By sponsoring the Olympic torch relay, Coke hopes to associate their brand with health and fitness.  In reality, however, athletes in training shun junk food and drinks just as Harry Potter should be weary of a company who’s Fruitopia natural drinks contain only 5% fruit juice but more sugar than your average can of soda pop.

The irony of inviting this corporate predator to headline the city’s “drug-free” First Night celebration – a “family oriented” event rife with children, should elude no one.  Coca Cola, however, knows no shame and is ruthless in its goal to replace all other sources of human hydration the world over.  According to the Financial Times, they are now the third most valuable corporation in America.  Yet, in essence, they produce almost nothing.  Their product is colored, flavored, chemically adulterated sugar water.  The packaging for this product is more sophisticated and costs many times the price of the product itself.  Around the world people pay premium prices for a taste of their own water and sugar bottled in their own country by their own countrymen.  Coke ads the magic of branding to the beverage and in return vacuums up revenue from every corner of the world, currently controlling 50% of the global market for soda pop.

Targeting Water

Fifty percent of the global soda pop market, however, isn’t good enough for the growth-obsessed Coca Cola Corporation.  Doug Ivester, Coke’s former CEO, set his sights on water.  Soft drinks are still an American phenomenon, with the average North American consuming 48 gallons of the bubbly stuff per year.  Europeans, by comparison, drink less than 13 gallons per year while folks in the developing world are still guzzling water.  

To Ivester, people drinking water instead of Coca Cola products translates into lost revenue.  He set out on a campaign to displace water in the global diet.  Meeting one’s hydration needs with Coke, however, means taking in nine times the RDA for sugar, not to mention enough caffeine to wire a Hippopotamus.   Coca Cola, under Doug Daft, it’s current CEO, is following Ivester’s plan, developing new Coke taps to be installed on kitchen sinks so that drinking Coke can be as easy as pouring a glass of water. Who knows, maybe Mayor Masiello will earn the honor to unveil this new product at next year’s First Night.

Racists and Murderers

Meanwhile, the Georgia-based company is also under fire for racial discrimination, recently paying over $192 million to resolve a discrimination suit filed by African-American employees. 

It gets worse.  This past July, the Colombian National Union of Food Industry Workers, with the aid of the US United Steelworkers Union and the International Labor Rights Fund, filed a lawsuit against Coca Cola alleging that the Company’s Colombian bottling operation maintains open relations with death squads accused of murdering union organizers at Coke’s Colombian plants.  Five organizers working at the Colombian plants have been brutally killed since 1994.  Oscar Polo was the most recent victim, shot to death as he was walking with his youngest daughter this past June.  This spate of killings follows the murder of three Coca Cola union organizers in Guatemala a decade earlier.  Coca Cola denies any wrongdoing, imploring the Nike defense, arguing that their bottlers are independent contractors.  Coke, however, is a partial owner of the Colombian operation, and by contract retains “strong oversight” over affiliates bottling its brands.

Sugar.  Caffeine.  Kids. Commercialization of culture. Racial discrimination.  Murder.  There’s a cloud hanging over Coca Cola.  Until these issues are resolved, which at the very least means until they stop aggressively marketing soda pop to children, subverting our public spaces with their omnipresent logos, and clean up their labor relations act both with regards to minority workers in the US and labor leaders abroad, they don’t deserve to be guests of honor in any American city. 

Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous columns are archived online at http://medistudy.com/articles.