Only finally does the question blunder into focus. I have already taken the trouble to walk down here, on my day off from a conference, five or six blocks from my hotel in downtown Atlanta. I have already waited in a short line to pay $16 for admission. I have already waited for about 45 minutes under a cold drizzle in a much longer snaking line. Long enough to return all my pending calls, long enough to text out a few other pleas for attention, long enough to take some pictures of the side of a Canadian tour bus—the driver: flattered by my interest in the amateur mural populated with several dozen painted busts of Famous Canadians. Me: barely containing mirth at recognizing only a face or two from among the illustrious maple-leaf melee—and long enough to make timid chitchat with the family standing behind me. (It’s their third or fourth time here, today with out-of-town visitors.) The bovine conviviality of lingering in line for mass entertainment slowly gives way to a crescendo of more and more bawling children, to my irritation at being jostled one too many times by that woman’s backpack, to the sense that standing this long on my feet is turning my optimistic curiosity into entitled crankiness. And it is then, and only then, that I find myself asking just what on earth I am doing, paying to undergo such damp indignities for the sake of taking a good look at what is bound to be one massive corporate orgy of PR self-congratulation. I have no idea how I’ve even heard of this place, no idea how it’s insinuated its way to the very top of my unformulated list of Sights To See One Day in Atlanta. I mean, I don’t even drink the stuff, certainly no more than like twice a year, when a trainee bartender misinterprets my request for “soda,” or at some ill-conceived Fourth of July gathering where there’s nothing else with which to choke down the one lonely bottle of rum that predictably survives at the drinks table. But by now I’ve come so far that there’s hardly any turning back, and I’m finally through the metal detector and into the World of Coca-Cola.
We are, about eighty of us, ushered into a waiting room with giant decorative bottles of CC, on which are written culturally sensitive holiday greetings in perhaps two dozen different scripts and languages—Joyeux Noël! Feliz Navidad! Happy Kwanzaa! (It is late December, after all—but then I can’t read what the Arabic or Japanese salutations say.) A timer on the wall informs us how long our wait will be (such timers turn out to be rife within the well-oiled crowd management of the WCC), and a few minutes later we are welcomed into a large hall, covered top to bottom with various items of vintage CC paraphernalia. Television screens sensationally flash bits of “Did You Know?” trivia: “…that Coca-Cola bottles are 98% recyclable?”, “…that Coca-Cola contains no artificial flavors or preservatives?”, “…that Coca-Cola is locally produced and bottled?” There is something for everyone here. Come ye, environmentalists; come ye, health conscious; come ye, opponents of globalization and advocates of local labor: it is clear from the outset that CC aims to be all things to all people, to advertise sympathetically to every preference and principle. The strategy feels flat enough in an age when everything from stadiums down to park benches is brought to us by some miserably inapposite company or other, and when tarted-up assertions about quality and production are as a matter of course qualified away in the casuistry of fine print. Beverage of Choice for the Health-Conscious Environmental Underdog. As if the very saying made it so. But I resign myself to the thought that for a while I’m a guest in the company’s particular little World, and anyway we all have our private corners of confabulation.
Most of our crowd is made up of families with young children; a sizeable minority are foreign tourists (“Did You Know … that 70% of Coca-Cola’s sales are international?”), and many are young couples who look to be out on dates. (In case you were considering it, I would strongly advise against attempting a family venue like this by yourself as a lone adult male. More than one parent sizes me up with something like consternation during the visit, as if scanning for a scarlet “P”: at one point during a theater presentation, a father even sets his mind to rest by switching seats to interpose himself between me and his kid.) Our tour guide, Ari, is in her early twenties, pretty as you please, and brimming with southern cheer and charm. I look for it, but there is no shade of the strained rictus one so often catches from service-industry employees whose job description includes the pretense to a sunny disposition. She welcomes us to the WCC, dances a little jig while she tells us how great it is to be part of the CC family, fills us in on the history of some of the more prominent posters and objects in the room, including the most expensive one (cue oohs, aaahs)—a Norman Rockwell painting of a Huck-Finnish-looking boy holding the telltale bottle—and leads us through the various cheerleading motions one expects while touring a family museum. In what will prove to be a significant gesture later in the visit, she asks every person in the room to simultaneously shout out where they are from; she then picks out one or two places from the cacophony and makes neighborly comments about how far away that is, or how warm or cold it probably is there. There is no want of enthusiasm when she prompts us to yell that we are in Atlanta, because WE LOVE COCA-COLA!
We are then led into the “Happiness Factory,” a small movie theater where we sit through a seven-minute animated CC ad called “Happyfication.” It is hosted by Pete, a blue critter who appears to be a cross between a smurf and a gremlin, gifted with a groovy smoove Marvin Gaye voice. Pete guides the viewer through a series of half a dozen cute musical vignettes, all of which supply the pretext for feel-good punch-lines, culminating in a song that is nothing but a Best Of unrelated bromides: “be curious, there’s so much to discover,” “be giving and kind, help people in need,” “be in the now, love the life that you lead,” “be active, in shape, turn that frown upside down,” “see the cup as half-full, not the other way round,” “tinker with your thinker, keep a grin on your chin.” A bottle of CC is always present as a background accessory in some form or other, and the recognizable CC jingle provides the theme for the final song, but there is no direct attempt to address or promote the product’s excellence as such—the words Coca-Cola are not actually spoken. It is as if the ad directly invites the question of how it does its work, by stretching the distance between its form and intention as far apart as they can go. In spite of finding its title perfectly gross, I still feel my heel tapping along to the catchy tune, and, I admit, even trying to remember some of the winsome valedictions with which one of the characters bids the viewer goodbye—“stay fly, chicken pot-pie!” “Keep it real, little baby seal!” I am used to thinking that commercial advertisements do their work by virtue of juxtaposition—if a product is associated with something obviously pleasant or good (family, friendship, humor, sex, charity or whatever) then some of that sheen will somehow rub off or reflect on the product. The affective frisson, the spritz of dopamine, that we experience with respect to one visual scenario carries over to the product, coloring our future preferences. And ever since a friend awed me during one clandestine middle school recess by pointing out the smutty patterns printed on every pack of Camel cigarettes, it has also become second nature for me to assume that such associations could be entirely subliminal, suggestive in ways of which we need not be consciously aware. (As I sit through “Happyfication,” it certainly takes no great strain of the pop-Freudian imagination to construe several of the weirdly polymorphous cartoon characters as allusive to pudenda.) The WCC does not exactly refute this account, but it complicates and deepens it: the company is disarmingly forthright about how they flog their wares, about how they take their publicity to work. If “Happyfication” tacitly invites the question of how such ads operate on us, then the rest of the “museum”—is that the right term for the WCC?—turns out to have a compelling logic of its own.
Having exited the Happiness Factory, we enter the museum proper, of which the first likely stop is an exhibit called the “Vault of the Secret Formula.” We amble through a corridor displaying various myths about the CC recipe, meant to sharpen our appetite for discovering just what the genius of the product is; a throaty recording whispers “sssssecret!” as we pull open any number of the drawers stacked along the walls, each of which contains some popular rumor about the much bruited Secret Formula of CC’s composition. (There is no explicit attempt to deny any of the rumors—it is clear throughout the WCC that the company revels in any kind of widespread attention, whether warranted or no.) After proceeding through the vault’s faux security foyer—in which, spy-thriller style, our faces are “scanned” and “approved” by the “data- base” for ingress—and after a few volunteers play a brief virtual reality game about hunting for CC bottles on a nineteenth-century train, the walls close be- hind us, swirling images of the recognizable tobacco-colored liquid are projected all around as if to engulf us, and the music whips up to a frenzied dithyrambic climax. Here it is, finally: the Sssssecret Vault! The walls open up in a different place, revealing … right, yes … something that looks like a Disney version of a bank vault, wreathed in lambent dry ice mystique. The recipe for making CC is supposedly inside This Very Vault. We are not permitted to touch it, though two minutes are allotted for pictures. “Is that a real vault?” I ask the guard, sidling up in my most wink-wink confidential tone. “Yes it is, sir,” he replies with the deadpan politeness he must keep on constant hand for dealing with wise guys. It is after going through the Vault that one can then turn to the more historical and educational exhibits in the WCC, but the opening lesson feels clear: What exactly did we expect here? That they would divulge their best-kept corporate formula to us for the price of admission? There is no doubt that CC is a distinctive, tasty drink; but the drink’s recipe is an opaque (if fixed) X around which the company has waged a vast marketing campaign for a century, a marketing campaign that—as Happyfication had already suggested—only tenuously relies on the merits of the product as such. Just what goes into a bottle of CC is of little consequence: nothing actually hangs on whether that Vault contains a secret recipe or a slip of paper with the word “suckers!” scribbled onto it. And so it is the next exhibit that begins to reveal the real secret, as it walks one through the transformation of the original CC product—a quack potation sold at soda fountains as the “ideal brain tonic” by John Pemberton of Atlanta in 1886—to the ubiquitous commercial presence it is today. The key transformation from “product” to “presence” seems to have been instigated by one Asa Candler, who, as a placard informs us, bought the company a few years after its creation and, even as he went about convincing more and more soda fountains to sell the product, “added the Coca-Cola logo to a host of practical, everyday objects. These items, including serving trays, calendars and clocks, reminded people everywhere of the refreshing taste of Coca-Cola.” The final step was the introduction, throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, of something the museum signs refer to as “lifestyle advertising”—the presentation of the product as emblematic of a certain personality, attitude and culture. The CC lifestyle, “the lifestyle of the refreshed,” is, we are told, glamorous, happy, attractive, optimistic: the advertisements no longer focused on demonstrating the superiority of a beverage for the purposes of refreshment or health, but on showing cool people having fun, CC in hand.
The historical exhibit concludes with a look at some of the company’s most prominent sponsorships—sports teams, athletes, the Olympic Games, the Oscars, musicians and even the armed forces. (There is a description of CC’s efforts to make sure that troops stationed in the Pacific Theater during World War II had ready access to “the taste of home.”) The “rubbing off” and “juxtaposition” in my initial characterization no longer feel quite accurate here: what’s striking is just how utterly seamless such images are, as if the very sight of Michael Jordan enjoying a CC is in itself a tacit aesthetic claim to the unity of his athletic prowess with his other choices. Do we really suppose even for a moment that athletes are committed to the products they endorse in their everyday lives, that they depend on them for sporting success? It may still be that there is something vaguely numinous about what is taking place in such advertising—as if whatever MJ comes in contact with will be thereby imbued with his own dunking charisma (like when we squirrel away an object that has once belonged to, or even just been touched by, a loved one). But however it is that the transference works, it is also clear that we take in our star-struck perception of endorser-and- product all at once, as single immediate insight into what is admirable. We take in the suggestion that we are seeing the kind of person who consumes a given product. I think this is why we are at once dismayed and maliciously delighted to hear top athletes talk about their own performances with all the nuance of grizzly bears attempting to make soufflé, and why public opinion is not entirely wrong to insist that celebrities behave as wholesome role models. No matter how many times we tell ourselves that many of them are corrupt human beings who just happen to excel at one isolated skill, we are nevertheless not effortlessly capable of discriminating that skill from the rest of who they are. Our visions of the beautiful and good are each of them a unified, coherent thou shalt—to sift what really should properly belong in them is a secondary and not at all straightforward task. “Is lifestyle advertising what stitched Coca-Cola to national consciousness and the whole world?” giggles the sign at the exhibit’s exit, “We’ll never know! But it’s refreshing!”
That we should perceive advertising images as seamless claims to meaning is interesting (and revealing) in its own right, but still feels more or less familiar as I keep myself moving through the museum. The placards’ blithe candor is of course unnerving, in that the company can count on my willingness to continue to be manipulated even once it has outlined how the manipulation works. But then it does seem like a more convincing description of contemporary advertising than my previous thoughts about the sinister marketing geniuses subliminally—and therefore mechanically—coercing us to buy certain things. (Okay, okay, not that that would have been prominently displayed on the walls here, even if it were true. Or that the two approaches should be incompatible.) The next stop is a small, actual packaging plant, where one can see an assembly line of bottles neatly being filled up, carbonated, capped and crated. Two or three workers supervise the (almost entirely computerized) process, oblivious to our ogling from behind the glass; and the placards tout facts about the great pains that the company takes to ensure that the flavor and aspect of the product is strictly uniform and universal. “Printed on every bottle is a unique code that indicates where and when all the ingredients and the packaging were manufactured. It also specifies the precise time and place the finished beverage was produced.” The assembly line is entrancing as only assembly lines can be: the severe homogeneity of each and every bottle directly inviting the thought of how various their eventual fates might prove. Passing up a chance to photograph myself with a man in a CC polar bear costume (it’s now nearing closing time, and his fur has been rendered unphotogenically tacky by the no doubt hundreds of children who have lovingly mussed it during the past seven hours), I ascend to the second level of the museum for the final stations of the unfolding argument.
Once upstairs, I encounter another exhibit, the “Pop Culture Gallery,” which features a mix of CC-themed memorabilia and prominent episodes in the company’s history. There is a description of how an attempt to change CC’s recipe in 1985 led to public hysteria of such magnitude that the company was forced to backtrack, and to reintroduce the original product as “CC Classic”:
People carried protest signs, wrote songs in tribute to the original recipe and emptied grocery stores of the last remaining cases of “old” Coke. Company leaders knew the new formula for Coke had scored well in blind taste tests and expected the initial uproar to subside once people had sampled the product. But they had not anticipated the depth of consumer loyalty to a brand that had been virtually unchanged for generations. Stung by increasingly angry and vocal critics, on July 11, 1985, exactly 79 days after the new version had been introduced, the Company announced the return of the original formula…
A few angry letters are proudly displayed, and the whole fuss is spun into a ringing success for CC—as indeed it is—showcasing the company’s sympathetic responsiveness to consumers’ needs, along with the unexpectedly deep commitment of the latter to the specific taste of CC. The urge for sameness trumped any possible improvement in quality. As if on cue to reinforce this point, one of the roving tour guides—Bill, a pudgy, balding man in his mid-thirties, whose eager-beaver (“in training”) manner is somehow redolent of his being domiciled in his parents’ basement— walks up for no obvious reason to start telling me about a 1971 television ad, called “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” to which he then points me. The ad features a group of attractive young people of all colors, garbs and ethnicities, all standing, evenly spaced, side by side on an Arcadian hill, all beaming and facing the same direction, all singing the same flower-powerful tune: “It’s the real thing, what the world wants today/I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company…” As I put these words to the page, I realize that it all sounds as hopelessly kitschy and zombified as the rest of the museum, and that of course it figures that the phonier our mass culture becomes, the more we are prone to a sort of Robespierrean anxiety about what should count as authentic, and that this only makes us bigger suckers for phony authenticity—for “the real thing,” for the “classic” CC taste. The actors in this ad are clearly lip-synching, after all. But from Bill’s logorrheic palaver of Fun Facts I gather that CC actually went to the trouble of putting exactly one young person from every single country in the world on that hill, and perhaps it’s that detail that causes me to pay attention in a different way, to feel gripped by a moment of close attention. It’s a theme that recurs again and again in the marketing campaigns I watch later in the museum: the fact that CC is the same for all people and all places, that it is “one of the unique things we all share,” that at this very moment—and please try to picture this—in every single country in the world (except, licitly at least, in Cuba and North Korea: Bill again), in practically every single Lebanese city and Portuguese town and Papuan hamlet and Antarctic outpost, someone is taking a sip from the same product, is tasting the unmistakably selfsame fizzy savor, to the tune of 1.7 billion servings every day. Setting the commercial perversity of it aside, there is something immediately beguiling about this thought, downright visionary even. We share any number of other things in creaturely solidarity, to be sure. We all long for and argue about the same things every day, the very things that make it possible for us to hold onto the thought that, say, art, philosophy and religion offer us windows onto what is purely universal. True as that may be, CC’s case still stands out for its clarity and palpability. Not only do art, philosophy and religion require a certain amount (even if merest modicum) of cultivation in order for us to be able to enter into their discipline, but they remain in some respect intrinsically hopeful; they are not methods of transferring controlled information, but pledges of an idealism that more resembles the act of flinging bottled love letters into the ocean. I do not mean this as criticism. They must be such because, in order to speak to us directly, they first require that we each take the trouble of interpreting them through our own experience. But within the intimacy of our mouths, within the palate pleasures of carbonated sugar, such ambiguities are bypassed in favor of what looks like a much more direct form of communion—immediately shared because it is as raw and uneducated as it is distinctive.
Even the taste of drinking water admits of some variation from place to place. I’ve visited jungle villages in Central and South America where there was no electricity, where the children were malnourished and lousy with treatable disease, where the women were unashamed of their bare breasts, where nearly no one spoke a European language, where the living conditions could hardly be more different from my own in every single other respect—and yet there too CC was, preposterously, always ready available, there too we had this one common pleasure and practice and name. The company boasts that “Coca-Cola” is the most widely understood term in the world, second only to its twin in vague optimism, the word “okay.” If you are like me, then you are used to envisioning a communist society—Marx’s protestations about the “free development of each” notwithstanding—as a sort of wretched Soviet hive, in which every trace of individuality has been grimly stamped out in favor of drudging conformity. “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” stops me cold because—maudlin as it sounds—it offers a flash of what it would be like for everyone in the world to really live as conscious participants of the same way of being and doing, what it would be like for us to be reprieved once and for all from the burdens, comparisons and antagonisms otherwise intrinsic to political life. What surprises me is not only the thought that CC markets itself in such a way as to appeal to a deep human hunger for uniformity, not only that it offers us an image of eschatological brotherhood, but that, in a sense, it already embodies it, already holds that place for us, by being universally same, universally shared, and universally present. CC is an obviously defective expression of that hunger, voided of ethical substance and attached to the purse-strings of a shamelessly profit-driven Atlanta juggernaut, but it is an image of a particular possibility nonetheless, and, yes, for a moment I do find myself thinking that it’s all sunshine, that tour guide Bill may not be so crackers after all when he tells me, with an utterly straight face, that “Coca-Cola has always been an ambassador to the world.”
I thank Bill and move on to the next exhibit, where I stand in another short line to watch a ten-minute 4-D feature called (again), “In Search of the Secret Formula.” It chronicles the zany hijinks of professor Rigby Addison Whetwhistle—a scientist with mad hair and posh British accent, natch—who, with the help of assistant and pet ferret, sets out to discover just that, the Secret Formula. None of this would be worth mentioning, and it’s all pretty lame, except that the conclusion they finally draw is again unexpectedly frank. The pursuit of the Secret Formula soon ceases to be about chemical ingredients alone, and Rigs ends by summing up his researches into what makes a Coke a Coke under the headings of four “U’s”: Unforgettable flavor (the X in the Vault, check), Uniform quality (bottling plant, check), Universal availability (sorry Cuba/North Korea, but check) and …“You!”—here Rigs and assistant unexpectedly apostrophizing in tandem to the fourth wall—“You, my dear people, are the heart of the secret; it’s you who have made Coca-Cola part of your daily lives. Coca-Cola is more than what’s inside the bottle, it’s an experience that’s unique to each of us, yet something we all share—special moments and memories, the secret formula for Coca-Cola is all of those things. What could be more refreshing than that?” A separate series of monitors in the foyer to the 4-D film has already pre- pared us for this, showing unscripted bystanders, apparently filmed just outside the WCC, relating their favorite memories involving CC—a first date, a childhood fishing trip, a famously hot Ohio day, and so forth. It’s clear that these people are not speaking about just anything; however it is they’ve been selected for this video appearance, their eyes light up with vim and conviction as they gush about the reasons why they prefer CC, how much it means to them. I don’t make much of this at the time—people get worked up about the darndest things—but after a bit more aimless wandering, I decide that I’m tired enough to sit down in the “Perfect Pauses Theater,” and it’s there that it dawns on me. The Theater is playing CC ads from a range of countries and decades on a forty-minute loop, a scattered audience wandering in and out at will. The versatility of the ads is again striking: they look and feel manifestly different, depending on their target demographic. There is a funny Spanish ad in which a pair of young pals discuss whether or not CC advertises by means of subliminal messages—as they all the while intently gape at images of a CC being poured onscreen. There is a Canadian ad that cleverly pitches CC as a counter-cultural emblem of a 1968-style student uprising. A Brazilian ad depicts the product as a prop for the antics of a fun-loving, insouciant bunch. A rather staid Chinese ad stresses character building and friendship. India, Argentina, Russia, Nigeria, Japan: my mind starts to drift off into generalized intercontinental tutti-frutti. Until something shows up on screen that jerks me back sharp. Because suddenly I feel a lump forming in my throat, and with a pang I realize that I’ve seen these images of a goofy dog in search of refreshment before, that I first watched this ad during the 1994 World Cup, that I saw it as I sat with a group of friends hopefully watching Mexico play Norway, crowded around the living-room floor, munching chips and drinking Cokes and agonizing at the television with all our young lungs’ muster, and that I’ve lost touch with every single person in that room, that they were all dear to me then and that time has since washed all of them out of my life, that even those players on the television are long gone, and that this ad this jingle this drink are all that’s left of that moment, and I have to take a deep breath because it slays me.
Many of the ads I end up seeing invite the viewer to reflect on precisely this theme, on CC’s presence and role in our own childhood, on our own formative memories of friends and family. It begins to feel less and less as if CC is simply aiming to sell itself by making cameo appearances with the beautiful and successful—its claim to memory is a claim to be one of the few things that endures unconditionally and unwaveringly same, to bind us to our own history not just as a sidekick, but as a constitutive element of that history. “Always Coca-Cola,” chimed the company’s slogan throughout my teenage years. I am all at once in sympathy with the chagrined folks that made sure that the new CC recipe did not replace the old one: if “I’d Like to Teach the World” and its kind show how it is that CC is universal in space, the appeal of temporal permanence feels equally, if not more, acute. Who cares what the thing tastes like, when what matters is that it allows us to keep directly in touch with our most intimate nostalgias, as easily as buying and opening a bottle? It may as well whisper “No, time, thou shalt not boast that I do change…” As I leave the theater, still rattled by this thought, I catch sight of a series of placards that turn out to add one further twist to the museum’s argument. Do you know what Santa Claus looks like? The roly-poly guy with God-the-Father beard, floppy cap and red-and-white pajamas, right? Know why you think that? “Through the centuries, Santa Claus had been depicted as everything from a stern bishop to a mischievous elf,” but in 1931 CC commissioned Haddon Sun- dblom, illustrator, to sketch images of Santa for a new advertising campaign: “Unlike earlier versions of a stern and sometimes scary figure, Sundblom’s Santa projected a warm and friendly personality that helped shape the image of Santa that lives on in the minds of children—and adults—all over the world.” The colors of Santa’s ensemble are no coincidence: they were expressly conceived to look good on bottles and cans of CC.
The implications of this seem staggering—I feel as betrayed as when I found out a few years ago that the Happy Birthday song is the copyrighted property of Warner/Chappell—but they are also of such dimensions as to be clean out of sight. Are we in any meaningful sense abetting the CC company when we draw on that familiar, friendly likeness of Santa? Or is the advantage only in play when we see him on a CC can? Did CC perform a service for us by standardizing Santa, in an age when the egalitarian passion for homogeneity is ascendant? And if it did simply perform that service, why should it matter that it’s CC that did so, rather than anyone else? It strikes me once more that CC’s universality is only possible because it seems perfectly spineless, perfectly indifferent to content. Jolly red Santa has only become ubiquitous because he is nothing but a polished mirror in which—bowdlerized and defanged of whatever dark mischief he got up to during the middle ages—we find reflected the thin acquisitive mythology suitable to our cultural situation. And yet the fact remains that that mirror is brought to us by CC. When we invoke that Santa, that banal-benign childhood fixture—a character subject to such feverish speculation up until the disenchantment of the world circa age eight—must we not in some sense also invoke the original source of his personality along with him? Or is it that no clear-cut division between our holiday practices and his CC connection can be traced anymore? The final exhibit allows visitors to taste a range of CC company drinks marketed to the idiosyncrasies of local palates from all different continents. CC itself remains everywhere the bestseller—and the company owns Fanta, Sprite and several other prominent soft drinks—but the CC company’s portfolio stands at about 3,500 different beverages worldwide, and one gets the sense that they’ve gone out of their way to choose some of their most outlandish productions. Because, of course, the more unpalatable we find some niche concoction from Bangladesh or from Namibia, the greater the wonder that we all have a shared taste for the flagship product. But after two or three such unsavory discoveries, I concede I’m too tired to play the CC sommelier, and look for the way out. Each visitor is handed an 8-ounce glass bottle of CC upon exiting the museum—a parting gift—only to then debouch into the gift-shop, where I can’t but smile at myself as I stop to buy a few expensive postcards. When I’m finally outdoors again, I stand blinking for a few moments as my eyes adjust to the uncertainty of deep twilight. A numerous Indian family is arranging itself for a picture: each of them stretching out their souvenir bottle before them with deliberate, toothy grins. They are obviously modeling themselves after one of the CC ads they’ve seen inside, for a snapshot that will duly take its place in the 2012 Atlanta Family Vacation photo album. And so it goes.
I look up at the WCC’s building, and try to make out whether its attractively streamlined aluminum style itself counts as “pop” or as “pop art” or as a pop imitation of pop art, until it again occurs to me that, as with the Norman Rockwell painting inside, the distinction is pointless tail-chasing. There is something unquestionably shabby about commercial advertising—its venal pandering, its demeaning, stultifying repetitiveness—the very thing that prevents an advertisement from, in principle, being a true work of art, a full expression of human freedom. But then my mind wanders to one of the best Frank O’Hara poems (“Having a Coke with You”) and then scenes from some of my favorite films come tumbling along after it—from Late Spring (Noriko and Hattori memorably cycling by a CC ad) and Nights of Cabiria (“This car’s got everything! Even Coca-Cola!”) and It’s a Wonderful Life (the CC ads in Mr. Gower’s drugstore) and Doctor Strangelove (“You’re going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola company!”)—and I realize that it’s all true. That the distinctions between advertising and art are no longer as impermeable as all that. That we can no longer assume today that certain commercial brands are any less universally present to our experience than the trees and the stones. That this silly sugar water is one of the things we have come to hold in common dominion—“Napoleon blew it, Hitler blew it, but Coca-Cola’s gonna pull it off!” cracks Jimmy Cagney in One, Two, Three. That I now understand why I’ve paid and devoted time to watch this company’s advertisements. That it’s not just the World of Coca-Cola.