In one of the world’s most famous television commercials, hundreds of teenagers of diverse backgrounds dance and sway on a sunny hillside as they belt out a ballad about teaching the world to sing in peace and harmony. Each young person is holding a bottle of Coke, the “real thing,” promising in his or her earnest way that if only everyone in the world would drink Coke, violence would cease and peace would prevail. Ever since 1886, when John Pemberton stumbled upon the secret formula for the soft drink that would become known as Coca-Cola, the company that eventually grew out of his success has obscured the shady medicinal origins of the drink and zealously designed ads that focus not on its ingredients but on what the customer thinks it represents. Coke has spent billions of dollars to present an image of wholesomeness and harmony cherished by millions of people around the world.
Yet, as award-winning magazine writer Michael Blanding points out in his provocative and far-reaching investigative book, The Coke Machine, all is not well in the House of Coke. The pristine images of peace and harmony promoted by the company have been shattered by accusations that the company has depleted water supplies in India, made schoolchildren fat in the U.S., supported murder as it sought to destroy unions in Guatemala and deceived consumers around the world by marketing tap water as purified water under its Dasani brand. For example, in the Kerala region in India, Coke not only used up fresh water supplies in its production process, it also produced solid waste that it distributed to local farmers as fertilizer. When the fields treated by this fertilizer began to lie fallow, and when farm animals that drank water polluted by this waste began to die, Indian scientists discovered that Coke’s solid waste contained four times the tolerable limit of cadmium, which can cause prostate and kidney cancer.
In shocking detail, Blanding uncovers Coke’s numerous transgressions against humanity and nature. Although many groups have protested Coke’s presence in their countries and various legal actions have been brought against Coke, the company has managed to slither out of the grip of any legal injunctions. It’s very unlikely that Coke will ever change its practices until its bottom line is threatened by binding legal consequences and there is a sustained public campaign that threatens its brand images. Blanding’s thoroughly detailed, stimulating and challenging study will have many readers saying, “Give me a Pepsi.”