Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink

This book starts out well. It details the origins and early history of the Coca Cola company. It places the beverage and the company clearly in its place and time and debunks some of the "creation myths" that are commonly proffered. It then brings it towards today, detailing many of the social and legal struggles that it has faced as it has grown to be the behemoth it is today. There were plenty of unsavory characters and actions in the process. However, there were also many innovations that were carried out well.

After spending the first third of the book on the narrative it begins to focus on contemporary issues. The battle over obesity and childhood marketing is well described. Coke clearly provides a beverage that provides minimal nutritional value and is consumed primarily due to the marketing. Coke has signed marketing agreements to "force" school children to have only access to coke products in return to much needed funds for schools. (However, this often exposes them to the very beverages that they are taught to avoid.) High fructose corn syrup-laden beverages have also been shown to encourage people to consume more calories and their consumption appears correlated with increases in obesity.)

Bottled water is also an issue. Coke has tried to branch out into the "healthy" beverage. However, they don't want to cannibalize the sales of their sugary beverages, so they end up positioning it as an alternative to tap water. This creates problems, because there water is primarily glorified tap water. Most consumers can't even tell the difference in the water. Instead of replacing sugary drinks with bottled water, most people end up replacing tap water. This results in increased pollution (due to the production and shipping of the bottles). It also costs a whole lot more. Coke is criticized for this behavior. (However, the whole industry blame. There are also cultural issues. I don't think I've seen a single water fountain in China, pretty much forcing you to buy bottled water if you have not carried it yourself.)

The final section on international and labor issues takes up the bulk of the book. Alas, this presents the least convincing argument. I found myself siding more with the company in this section. The "allegations" seems to center around a couple circumstantial accusations that are repeated ad nauseum by activists to further their agenda. In many cases it seems that they are attacking Coke for something that commonly occurs everywhere in the country. Sure, the big multinational may be easy to blame, but often their behavior is "above average" for the country. What good does it do to simply replace Pepsi with Coke in the US because some union in Colombia had issues with paramilitaries years ago. This could discourage any further change (because they will still be attacked for old problems.) It could also benefit other big companies that have similar problems.

Cut off the last section and this book is a great history and expose of Coke. The last section, alas dilutes the argument. However, you still find yourself amazed that one company has convinced so many people to drink a beverage that isn't nutrition and doesn't taste good.

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