- By Katelyn FossettKatelyn Fossett is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy. A native of Kentucky, she has previously written for the Inter Press Service and Washington Monthly. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University.
On Monday, Apple (and, in second place, Google) surpassed Coca-Cola as the most valuable brand in the world according to an annual report by the consultancy Interbrand — a title the beverage behemoth has claimed since the start of the report’s run 13 years ago. It’s the end of an era in which Coca-Cola’s international ubiquity and global recognition seemed untouchable. By dint of its links to American culture, the soda has occupied an often bizarre place in political movements around the world, frequently serving as an expression of solidarity with — or distaste for — the West and the capitalist culture it exports. A verb was even coined to reflect the beverage’s association with cultural imperialism: to "coca-colonize" means to "bring (a foreign country) under the influence of U.S. trade, popular culture, and attitudes." Here’s a look back at some of Coke’s most memorable cameos in international relations.
Post-War Reconstruction in France: Poujadism, the movement that gave rise to the term coca-colonization, emerged out of resistance to the rapid urbanization and industrialization that post-World War II reconstruction brought to France in the 1950s, and took aim at both crippling inflation and an influx of foreign — especially American — goods that squeezed local industries. Poujadism’s anti-Americanism climaxed, absurdly, with rumors that Coca-Cola had bought Notre-Dame cathedral, intending to cover its western façade with a billboard.
One of the first known uses of the term coca-colonization dates back to 1949, when the French Communist party introduced a bill banning the importation and sale of Coca-Cola in France, warning of "an immediate menace to our production of wines, of aperitifs with a wine base," and other drinks. "This grave danger resides in the methodical, powerful organization of a massive Coca-Cola invasion of France," an explanation attached to the bill read.
The Cold War: In January 1985, the Soviet government struck a deal with the president of Coca-Cola at the time, Donald R. Keough, that gave the company permission to officially sell its products in the Soviet Union, ending Pepsi’s monopoly in the country. But Coke had made inroads in the country well before then. Marshal Georgi Zhukov, a Soviet war hero, used to order specially made Coca-Cola so that he wouldn’t be seen drinking an "American imperialist symbol." Dwight Eisenhower had introduced Zhukov to the beverage and Zhukov, in an effort to avoid Joseph Stalin’s disapproval, had a chemist at Coca-Cola remove the caramel color from the drink and put it in a clear bottle with a red star. Zhukov received 50 cases of White Coke in his first shipment.
In November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, Coca-Cola understood the symbolic implications of the moment, taking the opportunity to hand out free Coke to East Germans walking into West Berlin.
The Iraq War: The soda’s symbolism remained potent into the 21st century, as Coca-Cola-themed demonstrations cropped up against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. University organization in Nicaragua arranged "One Day Without Coca Cola" as part of a spate of protests and boycotts of other American products, and a banned rebel group in India targeted stores that sold Coca-Cola (as well as Pepsi) in raids that ended with a bombing of one of the stores. In Thailand, protesters dumped Coca-Cola into the streets, and sales of the beverage were temporarily suspended over the invasion.
The United States, of course, is intimately familiar with beverage politics: one of the most iconic demonstrations in American history, the Boston Tea Party, was a rejection of the British injustices that tea and the East India Company had come to symbolize for American colonists. In much the same way, Coca-Cola has become synonymous with American imperialism, making its consumption the subject of attacks by anti-American leaders from Hugo Chávez to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. California-based Apple may not fully step into the symbolic role that Coca-Cola has long played — $500 smartphones aren’t as likely to be smashed in the street, after all — but the world’s newest most valuable brand is surely subject to some of the same unsavory associations with the United States that made Coca-Cola a simultaneously loved and despised brand worldwide.