Friday, November 7, 2014

Bartow J. Elmore's "Citizen Coke"

Bartow J. Elmore, an Atlanta native, grew up drinking Coke. He now teaches history at the University of Alabama.

Elmore applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism, and reported the following:
Citizen Coke begins with a simple question: how did an obscure patent medicine invented in an Atlanta pharmacy in 1886 end up all over the world? In answering this question, I was interested in the materiality of Coke. Looking beyond company advertising, I wanted to know how Coca-Cola acquired the natural resources it needed to make the Real Thing a real product sold on retail shelves around the globe.

The back of a Coca-Cola container was the roadmap. In each chapter, I examined a different ingredient in Coca-Cola and talked about the public and private sector partnerships that enabled the company to acquire the natural resources it needed to become the most well recognized brand in world history.

What I came to find when I followed the ingredients was a story that was much bigger than Coke. I discovered that what made Coke great—what you might call its real secret formula—was not really what it did, but what it didn’t do. Coke proved incredibly adept at outsourcing the majority of the production and distribution aspects of its business to others, making money as a kind of commodity broker of natural capital. Averse to vertical integration, Coke was a middleman, never holding on to commodities too long, making money off the transfer of materials from independent producers and distributors. This model for making money, which I call Coca-Cola capitalism, became a strategy adopted by many businesses by the end of the twentieth century, from software firms to fast food chains.

Page 99 of Citizen Coke finds Coke’s colorful Vice President Ralph Hayes brokering one of many deals with federal legislators to prevent a tax hike on sugar. Hayes, a “flaymboyant bow-tie wearer” (99), appeals to US Senator from Georgia Walter F. George to oppose the proposed 1936 levy, arguing that such a tax “would bear . . . indefensibly . . . on the housewife” (99). In this moment, we see Citizen Coke at his best, convincing lawmakers that Coca-Cola’s interests and the interests of average American citizens are one and the same. In the end, the measure does not pass and Coke is victorious.

So I’d have to say Citizen Coke passes the test. After all, perhaps the most important theme of the book is the way in which Coke is able to lean on government infrastructure—whether public water supplies, recycling systems, or legislative measures—to gain access to cheap commodities. We see that story clearly on page 99.
Learn more about the book and author at Bartow J. Elmore's website.

--Marshal Zeringue