We, the people, sure seem to enjoy our Coca-Cola. It is a product as decidedly American as a warm slice of apple pie. Few products can boast a level of universal recognition comparable to this heavily sweetened cola-flavored soft drink that has been enjoyed by literally billions of people over the past century. Through the Great Depression, two World Wars, and every decade in between and beyond, Coca-Cola has held a special place in our hearts.
It is unlikely that John Pemberton, a pharmacist in Atlanta, GA, ever fathomed that people all over the world would someday “Have a Coke and a Smile”. When he first concocted his cola syrup in 1886, it was purely for medicinal purposes and sales were poor. Then a man by the name of Asa Candler came along, bought the formula and began aggressively marketing his product as a refreshing soft drink. This marketing was successful enough to make “Coke” a household name soon after the turn of the century, where it remains, more than a hundred years later.
If you lived during the first fifty years of Coca-Cola, you know that there were basically two ways to “Enjoy Coke”. You could purchase it in its distinctive tapered glass bottle, introduced in 1916, or you could get your fix from the local drug store’s soda fountain. Here, a friendly soda jerk would serve the fizzy beverage over ice. For a special treat, you might request that they add a shot of flavored syrup to the mix, enabling you to enjoy a vanilla, cherry, or chocolate coke. And, of course, a scoop of ice cream could be added to transform your beverage into a tasty dessert, known as the “Coke Float”.
In the fifties, Americans began their love affair with a new type of cuisine; “fast food”. Coca-Cola earned its place in the coveted fast food trinity of “burger, fries, and coke” and became the staple diet of teenagers from coast to coast. From movie theaters, to gas stations, to baseball games, there were few places around that you couldn’t get a coke.
Coke’s popularity stems from years of successful marketing campaigns with catchphrases that have implanted themselves into our memories over the years. From 1956’s “Feel the Difference” and 1970’s “It’s the Real Thing”, to 1976’s “Coke Adds Life” and 1993’s “Always Coca-Cola”, every generation has had a slogan to call their own. None, however, have matched the success of the 1971 campaign, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”, giving us one of the most memorable advertising songs ever produced; “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”.
Over the years, Coca-Cola has had its share of competitors, most notably, Pepsi-Cola. In the late 70’s, Pepsi started conducting blind taste tests all across America to prove to consumers that their product tasted better. It didn’t seem to dent Coke’s popularity. One event did have a negative effect on Coca-Cola however, when in 1985, the company decided to alter the sacred Coke formula. They introduced “New Coke” and soon learned that the public had little interest in the new product. The fans wanted their old Coke back and the company finally relented shortly afterwards, introducing (or reintroducing, as it were) “Coke Classic”.
Of course, true connoisseurs of the product know that the formula for Coke had already been altered years earlier, when the company quietly switched from using pure cane sugar to high fructose corn syrup. The switch had a noticeable effect on the flavor, removing some of the “bite” that Coke lovers had grown to expect. It should be noted, for those among us who would like to experience Coca-Cola in its true original form, you simply need to hunt down some of the product that has been imported from Mexico. They still use sugar in Coke that is bottled there and the “bite” is still present, giving it the flavor you may remember from your childhood.
Coca-Cola has had to deal with a number of rumors and urban legends over the years. The company has done their best to dispel these bits of misinformation but many continue to persist to this day. For the record, a tooth placed in a glass of Coke will not dissolve completely. Nor will the phosphoric acid in Coca-Cola eat the lining of your stomach. And no, the product does not contain cocaine. It did contain trace amounts when it was first created but even this minute amount was carefully eradicated from the product within the first couple of years.
None of these dire potential consequences seem to have slowed the popularity of Coca-Cola: one hyphenated word that is arguably the most recognized in every corner of the civilized world. And no matter what era you call your own, you are almost assured to have a fond memory or two stored away of an ice-cold coke on a hot summer day. So will your children and grandchildren. If history is any indication, Coca-Cola isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon.
If you are loyal drinker of Coca-Cola, we welcome your memories in our comments section. Were you one of the people aghast when the recipe change was announced or did you actually like New Coke? Do you agree that it always tastes best out of a glass bottle or from a soda fountain. Share all of your thoughts with us as we tip our hats to this iconic American beverage.