Fenn: I Am Not a Coke Person

Are you a Coke person or a Pepsi person? I have never been able to detect any gustatory difference—definitely not enough to chose a favourite—and I have always been a little suspicious of people who can. I imagine that with every sip of cola their tongues process a syrupy crescendo of pomp, polar bears, and Michael Jackson songs, all emblazoned in a deliberate colour scheme that insists on its absolute uniqueness. It’s not just that these people allow the marketing to dictate what can of sugar water they buy (I wouldn’t waste your time by pointing out that cute polar bears influence consumer trends), what I am talking about is more pernicious. By participating in the empty narrative that Coke and Pepsi have been trotting out since 1975, these people actually reify it; as long as we declare that we really are more “Pepsi People” than “Coke People,” then I suppose that there is actually such thing as a “Pepsi Person.” Call it superstructure, call it bullshit, but if consumers are willing to be betrothed to a brand of soda for life and even give it a sort of identity-making power, the incentive for Coke and Pepsi to hook the impressionable, the young, and the stupid is pretty irresistible. In the mid-’90s Coca Cola found them at UBC.

In order to fully appreciate this story I think I have to do the pedantic work of describing Canada’s fiscal situation in the ’90s. Sorry.

Suffice to say, by the time Jean Chrétien became Prime Minister in 1993, Canada was historically fucked. The economy was barely growing, interest rates were rising, and Standard & Poor’s had downgraded Canada’s foreign currency debts to “double-A plus,” which apparently is the stuff of national embarrassments. Anyway, there was a serious chance that the Canadian government would not be able to make the interest payments on their $500-billion debt. Furthermore, after a disastrous eight years under Brian Mulroney, the federal deficit had ballooned to a historically unprecedented $40-billion and unemployment spiked. As is so typically Canadian, the press hysterically printed column inch after column inch decrying how Americans had taken to calling the Loonie “the northern peso,” and the Wall Street Journal had christened Canada “an honorary member of the Third World.” Unemployment, homelessness, and a sinking working class were mentioned as a footnote in the far more important issue that the world was making fun of our precious loon-and-monarch-coin.

Charged with righting the ship, Chrétien enacted crushing austerity measures that gutted Canada’s institutions and drastically reduced the size its government while only marginally raising taxes; it was essentially a Friedmanist wet dream and it makes the Stephen Harper 2012 budget look like it was written by Antonio Gramsci. Minister of Finance Paul Martin vowed to cut the deficit “come hell or high water” and there was plenty of both for Canadian universities. So it was in this context that Coca Cola offered controversial exclusivity deals to UBC, Ryerson, and Queens.

UBC was first. In 1995 AMS executives received a massive legal deal from Coca Cola that I have had the unfortunate displeasure to have read which basically offered the institution $850,000 a year to, oh, be a total shill. Coke banners were strewn across the campus, all of the Pepsi on campus was unceremoniously trucked away, and an ostentatious bank of Coke machines was erected at the bus loop. Until 1995 when a Freedom of Information request by the Ubyssey’s Stanley Tromp released the details to the public, the AMS-Coke deal was kept completely secret (at the Coca Cola Corporation’s insistence) in spite of the AMS’ own mandate to make all of its deals public. The secrecy prompted UBC students to pack the AMS vote on the deal with a slew of anti-Coke signs. And, while the seemingly impossible-to-mobilize student body was pretty angry at first—the bank of Coke machines was actually torched!—eventually most people forgot that there was a deal in place at all (except, I suppose, for especially loyal “Pepsi People”).

To sweeten the deal the AMS pledged to spend almost all of the incoming funds on making its buildings more wheelchair accessible and providing support for disabled students, which is the sort of apolitically benevolent gesture that really comes in handy when you are selling off your students to one of the worst human-rights-abusing multinational corporations in modern history. Like so many U.S. corporations, Coca Cola profited from its partnerships with the Third Reich during World War II, although Coke actually took the extraordinary step of appointing high-ranking Nazi officials to run its German business. Again, not atypically, Coke has had a regrettable habit of assassinating brown-skinned labour leaders. In the 1990s most UBC students who protested the Coke deal were more concerned with Coke’s record in South Africa: the Coca Cola Corporation was a target of the anti-apartheid boycott-disinvestment movement for its use of criminally cheap black labour in segregated South Africa. And, just as the deal was being signed, Coke was pursuing policies in India that would put populations in danger after polluting and depleting local water supplies. All of this without even touching the whole obesity/diabetes thing. There have been several books written on the particular ruthlessness of Coca Cola, but suffice to say for our purposes that they are evil assholes of a special kind, far outpacing their competitors in terms of exploitation and greed.

So without wanting to be too much of a free-market triumphalist here, it seems clear that removing students’ ability to choose Pepsi over Coke did not come free from its own sort of global consequences. Here we return to the young, the impressionable, and the stupid. With high schools, universities and even elementary schools signing onto these deals in order to compensate for Chrétien’s austere cuts, North American students were sold off to corporations who were desperately trying to cultivate life-long customers. When I interviewed Tara Ivanochko, the former AMS Director of Finance for The Terry Project Podcast, she framed the issue perfectly: “You’ve got the university using students or someone coming in and asking the university to just hand over the population. So you’ve got people from aged 18 to 25 that the university has just passed over to Coca Cola and said you can have them for this critical period of their life and let them form their habits based on your products. And Coke knows the impact of that. You have students now, whether or not their thinking of it themselves, they are making rum and Coke, they’re not making rum and Pepsi, they don’t have the choice. And it might be ridiculous now that outcome without an exclusivity deal is that you have a Coke machine standing next to a Pepsi machine, as if that is a better option or less corporate, but the reality of that is that then those two corporations have to fight in some other way without the University saying we are giving our students to you.”

The whole equation becomes even more complex when you add childhood into the mix. Advertising agencies have gotten pretty good at preying on the reduced agency and general powerlessness of children. This passage from Nabakov’s Lolita does a better job than I can do of encapsulating this phenomenon:
“A combination of naïveté and deception, of charm and vulgarity, of blue silks and rosy mirth, Lolita, when she chose, could be a most exasperating brat . . . She believed, with a kind of celestial trust, any advertisement or advice that appeared in Movie Love or Screen Land Starasil Starves Pimples, or ‘You better watch out it you’re wearing your shirttails outside your jeans, gals, because Jill says you shouldn’t’ . . . If some café sign proclaimed Icecold Drinks, she was automatically stirred, although all drinks everywhere were ice-cold. She it was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object of every poster.”

It hardly needs pointing out that this passage is delivered by—and here comes the understatement of the year—an unreliable narrator. Humbert Humbert is a sort of monster who recognizes his prey’s powerlessness but cannot see his own exploitation of it. Nevertheless, I think that thinking of “Coke People” and “Pepsi People” as the “subject and object” of an advertising campaign really nails it. This is why I have included the categories “impressionable” and “stupid,” because—let’s face it—if you are old enough to legally put rum in your Coke you bear some of the responsibility for all of this subjectivity-objectivity conflation. That said, university-aged students tend to occupy a somewhat liminal space between bushytailed lemming-ness and Kantian agency; many of these people are making their first consumer decisions away from their parents. It is a good time to hook them.

The deal, it turns out, was a complete disaster. After a five-year, expensive legal battle that included two Supreme Court hearings, the Ubyssey and Stanley Tromp opened the deal up to the public. The first revelation was that UBC students would have to drink a minimum of 33.6 million bottles and cans of Coca Cola products in the first ten years or the deal would be extended an extra two years without any compensation. If 33.6 million cans and bottles over 10 years seems like a lot that is because it is a laughable lot. It is an undrinkable-cluster-fuck of coke. Of course, we failed to meet the quota just as students at Ryerson, Guelph and Queens have failed to meet their quotas. It seems as if Coke had banked on the basic inability of student governments to do the math. It was a bet that paid off for a time, but now there is a palpable backlash; In all of these institutions, as here, the student unions have faced immense pressure to never sign an exclusivity deal again, especially not with Coke.

And then there are the water fountains: writing in a 2005 edition of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, Sean Cook and Stephen Petrina reported that over 114 fountains, 44 percent of the total water fountains on campus, were removed since the Coke deal was struck in 1995. Now if this is all starting to sound like the stuff of conspiracy theories consider, first, how much pressure Andrew Parr, the director of Food Services, would have been under after it became clear that UBC would not meet its quota unless it augmented its Coke Sales and consider, and consider the following 1998 quote from Coke CEO Roberto Goizueta:
Right now at this point in time in the United States, people consume more soft drinks than any other liquid, including ordinary tap water. If we take full advantage of our opportunities, some day, not too many years into our second century, we will see the same wave catching on in market after market until, eventually the number one beverage on earth will not be tea or coffee or wine or beer, it will be soft drinks, our soft drinks.
Cook and Stephen Petrina also point to a quote from Coca Cola’s 1997 annual report that was later reprinted by Adbusters: “Because some fountain drinks are still easier to find. In many places it’s still easier to find a water fountain than a Coca-Cola. That’s why we continue to strengthen our distribution system. We’re working hard to make our products an integral part of any landscape so they are always within reach.”

Let their be no doubt, Coca Cola hates water fountains and the University as a defacto retailor of Coca Cola grew to hate them too. The University’s official line remains that the pipes were old and the water was contaminated, but it seems telling to me that the fountains were not replaced—they were removed. Students at Ryerson have also complained about their lack of fountains and the neglect of existing fountains. At Queens, students have become so anti-bottled water that starting this September the sale of the stuff will be totally banned campus.

Unfortunately, there is still more bad news: only 7.5 percent of the revenue was ever allocated towards disabled students. In fact, Stanley Tromp told The Terry Project Podcast that 21% of the 8.5 million went to UBC’s marketing contract consultant, Spectrum Marketing, which was led by a former Coca Cola VP. When Tromp asked UBC president about this change “[she] said very tersely ‘our spending priorities changed. That’s all. I don’t want to talk any more about it.’” The pressure to sell the deal was off and, so, the whole “this is for the disabled kids” shtick was basically kaput.

In 2007, on the day of the deal’s expiry, Pepsi machines were trucked back on campus, restoring the soda duopoly, for whatever that’s worth. While it seems pretty unlikely that the AMS is gong to be suckered into anymore exclusive contracts in the next little while, it is important to remember that unlike other student unions, the AMS still basically functions as a business entity at UBC. If we want them to spend more time advocating for lower tuition, democratizing curricula and petitioning for affordable housing on campus than we need to pressure them.

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Sam Fenn is the Executive Producer and Host of The Terry Project on CiTR. You can follow Sam on twitter (https://www.twitter.com/Samadeus), check out his instagram (http://www.instagram.com/rsamfenn) and read more of his writing at www.samfenn.com.