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The Real Thing. Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company. Constance L. Hays. Random House. 416 pages. $25.95 (Click here or on the cover image to purchase this book.)

The Real Thing. Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company



Originally published on Monday, February 2, 2003 in The Miami Herald.

Coca Cola is flavored, colored, caffeinated, carbonated sugar water. That a culture and mystique have grown up around it is amazing; that a huge, multibillion dollar international corporation has resulted from the manufacture and distribution of this beverage is astounding.

But we rarely regard it so, given the long history and ''personal'' relationship many people have developed with Coke (or as they call it in its hometown of Atlanta, ``Co'Cola''). Some collect its memorabilia: signs, glasses, serving trays, advertising posters, bottles, caps, cans -- anything emblazoned with the Coke name or logo.

But the history of the drink and the companies that grew to promote and sell it is a colorful one. Business journalist Constance Hays was up to the task; this extremely well researched, surprisingly entertaining saga is told almost like a novel with a broad panorama and a colorful and memorable cast.

Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen, perfected the technique of introducing carbon dioxide into water in 1767. The bubbly drink was declared to possess miraculous restorative powers by its users and medical authorities. Mixed with fruit juice, it became an even more marketable and attractive product.
Along with other carbonated beverages, the nascent Coca Cola was originally dispensed and was only available at pharmacies, which increased its perceived value. One of the first marketing moves by the early management of the newly popular drink was to ensure that it was classified as a food, rather than as a drug by the appropriate authorities, despite its slight cocaine content. The cocaine was removed early in the product's life, but the soft drink was referred to as ''dope,'' especially in the South, for many years thereafter

Hays tells of the founding of the Coca Cola company, and how the owners gave away the rights to bottle the stuff, selling the syrup to the packagers at a fixed price, originally ''in perpetuity.'' This was eventually discovered to be a monumentally bad deal for the company, since it created a secondary business that the primary one was unable to control.

Eventually, Coca Cola managed to buy up the bottlers, and according to Hays, created a new entity of which it owned less than half, but still controlled. Interestingly, Coca Cola managed to foist off much of its debt and operational costs on the other firm, but got away with (and benefited from) this bookkeeping sleight of hand for many years.

The business end of the story can be a bit dry at times, but Hays' accounts of Coke's executives, particularly the legendary Roberto Goizueta, who died in 1997, are lively and sharply drawn. The introduction of New Coke, a classic marketing miscalculation spearheaded by that colorful and indomitable CEO, is especially well told, as is the ouster of Goizueta's successor, Doug Ivester, by investors Herbert Allen and Warren Buffett.

The consequences of the company's long and shameful history of racial discrimination (despite funding many of Rev. Jesse Jackson's initiatives) are also recounted in vivid detail, the result, no doubt, of the author's interviews with vital primary sources.

In sum, The Real Thing is a fascinating and revealing portrait of an American institution and an international icon, one that will be studied for years to come.









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