© Jeremy D. Nickel 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation November 18, 2012
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I was the Coca-Cola kid, and this is my confession. Long before I ever called myself a Unitarian Universalist, I was baptized at the soda fountain, and basked in my blind love for America's favorite effervescent beverage. I literally worshipped Coca-Cola, not just the drink, but the brand. From a young age I had been charmed by its not-so-subtle image of representing all that was good about America. And when I say I worshipped this brand, I kid you not. Over many visits to the antique shops in Maine where my grandparents lived, I built up quite a collection of Coca-Cola merchandise: from vintage bottles and cans, to old signs, and a myriad of tchotchkes like key chains, watches, drink holders, and tin plates. As my collection grew, my friends and family began helping out, bringing me bottles of Coca-Cola from wherever their travels took them in the world. I was given bottles from five continents and dozens of countries, in strange sizes, languages and colors. From the age of about eight until I left for college, this enormous collection lived in a big shrine in my bedroom.
This faith, you should know, did not go untested. No, like all great and passionately held idols, Coca-Cola put me through a time of trial and tribulation. I speak of course, of New Coke.
On April 23 of 1985 I was just an eight-year-old boy, loving his favorite soft drink and thinking life was pretty great. And then it happened. On that day Coca-Cola completely stopped producing the most famous and enjoyed human-made beverage in the world. It is actually impossible to imagine this now, almost 30 years later, that one of the biggest companies in the world would suddenly and completely halt creation of its signature product and replace it with a substitute, when no one was complaining in the first place. But that is what happened. And it broke my heart.
I tried to love New Coke. I really did. I purchased it regularly at first and attempted to stomach its horrible saccharin sweetness. I faked a smile when someone asked me how I felt about this New Coke, attempting to be what I thought was a faithful follower.
But I knew deep inside from the instant the first drop of that foul liquid imposter passed through my lips that I could never and would never love New Coke. This is how my first crisis of faith began. And setting a pattern that has continued to this day, I chose exploration and education over silently and unquestioningly continuing an unsatisfactory faith.
I reasoned that the leadership of Coca-Cola would clearly realize that they had made a mistake, if presented with the correct evidence. And what could be clearer than the pleadings of an adherent as passionate as I was? I knew that what I needed to do was to become an old coke activist. And so, as soon as school ended in June that year, I began to put my plan into motion.
Step one was a taste test. Now, having been someone who had loved Coca-Cola the way I did, I still had a huge stockpile of the original formula. So I purchased a few cases of the New Coke, hoping it was the last I would ever buy, and a few cases of Pepsi.
Then it was time for step two. So, beginning another pattern that might sound familiar to you all, I called the media.
The next day my babysitter, my sister and a neighbor friend I recruited from across the street helped me cover the neighborhood with signs advertising the great New Coke taste test. We set up a little stand, but instead of selling lemonade, we conducted taste tests all day on those who followed the instructions on the signs that led them through our little leafy suburban neighborhood and up our tucked-away dead-end street and finally onto my front porch.
And around noon, I was thrilled when the media arrived. It was a reporter from our local Newspaper, the Newton Tab, and he put us on the front page of what I knew of as a real deal paper. Here is that article, in which I conclude that: "they ruined Coke to try and make it sweet like Pepsi." The results were overwhelmingly in support of my thesis. Of the highly scientific sample of 12 people that showed up, seven preferred Old Coke, five preferred Pepsi and not one person preferred New Coke.
I was now ready for step three of my plan, and I could not believe it was going so well! I cut the article out of the paper and wrote a letter to Coca-Cola describing why I had done what I had done, and laying out the clear facts of the matter. As my taste test had clearly revealed, not only was New Coke less popular than the Old Coke, it was also less popular than Pepsi, their big rival, the great Satan, to my glorious Coca-Cola.
And then I waited. And waited. And for this nine-year-old kid that measured time in milliseconds, this time waiting for a response seemed to last forever.
But really it lasted only 6 weeks. Just as summer was ending and I was wondering if I would ever hear from Coca-Cola with the news that they had relented in the face of my well-reasoned evidence, a letter arrived. This letter. Dated August 15, read as follows:
We appreciate your interest in taking the time to express your opinion regarding Coca-Cola. To those who enjoy our new taste, our sincere thanks. To those of you who indicated you prefer the classic taste of the original formula, we gratefully respond - we've heard you.
We at the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New England know that insuring your satisfaction must be our highest priority. Whether your preference is for the broad taste appeal of Coke, Coca-Cola classic, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke or our other fine products, we are certain that we have the taste for you.
President and General Manager
Now I am sure many people would have disappointedly focused on the rather generic tone of this letter. Even a nine-year-old could tell this had not been written just for me. But that is not what I clung to. Rather, I noticed the set of words I had never seen before: Coca-Cola classic, and the phrase "We've heard you!" which I knew could only mean one thing. They had indeed heard me. Reason had won out, and my beloved old version of Coca-Cola, albeit with a new name, would indeed soon reclaim store shelves everywhere. I had won!
And just like that, my first crisis of faith had ended. Soon I returned to my beloved soft drink and brand connection, and the shrine in my bedroom began to truly grow in earnest. And my easy relationship with the syrupy treat continued like this for another decade. Then, as a college freshman, I found myself in Atlanta, GA.
A few days into the visit I took a walk downtown by myself. It was no coincidence that I ended up at the Coca-Cola Museum. I knew that Atlanta was the headquarters of the multi-national behemoth that Coke had become, and I had been told many times of the incredible Coke Museum that they had built there, a bigger shrine even than the one I had made.
I did not know it yet, but would soon learn that this visit to Atlanta would mark the end of my soft drink love affair. But first, I spent a marvelous final afternoon with this old love, fully immersed in the epic story of Coca-Cola and all the accompanying propaganda. After making my way slowly and reverently through the museum, I came into the final room. It was like something out of a Willy Wonka-inspired fantasy. All around the room machines buzzed and whirred and sent different colored liquids soaring in majestic arcs through the air. All the standard drinks were represented: The red of Cherry Coke, and orange of Fanta, the greenish tinge of Sprite, and majestic deep purple of Dr. Pepper, and of course the dark browns of their colas and root beers. But also accompanying them in this incredible liquid rainbow arcing over my head were drinks I had never heard of from around the world: pink spritzers and yellow aperitifs, turquois sports drinks and clear bubbly tonics, so many strange flavors and exotic colors that I had never before imagined. It truly was the Promised Land. I had made it! And I spent quite some time sampling every flavor offering they had.
Later that evening I returned to my friends' house in the suburbs, and when I told the story of my incredible experience at the Coca-Cola Museum that afternoon, it was met with a stony and awkward silence that I did not understand. Later that night one of them approached me with a book, entitled: For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It.
Some people have their eyes opened by the Bible, or a poem, or a mystical moment of meditation. For me, it was this book. It turned out to be exactly what the title describes, a re-telling of the story, and the implications of the Coca-Cola industry. And it was all horrifying. This company that I had adored for so long and given so much of my money to was far from the perfect brand I had imagined. Everything I had believed and had heard at the museum was a twisted version of the truth. That idea that Coke represented all that was good about American was suddenly replaced by visions of stolen and polluted public water supplies around the globe, murdered union activists in South and Central America, injured and abused employees across the Indian subcontinent and more and worse.
I learned another fact from that book that to many would not have rated on the same scale as these other very real and brutal truths, but to me was far more of a personal betrayal. Rather than being based on a genuine desire to introduce a new flavor to soda lovers everywhere, New Coke had been a secret plan by the company to switch the sweetening ingredient used in my beloved drink without having to make a big deal of it. For its entire history before April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola had been made with pure cane sugar. But when it was re-introduced, first as Coca-Cola Classic and then eventually just as Coke again, the sugar was replaced with corn syrup. The new cans and design for the newly named Coca-Cola Classic got the company around the legal requirement to disclose the ingredient change. A horrible change for consumer's health, but a wonderful one for the American corn industry that continues to this day to attempt to figure out how to cram corn in everything we eat. So that entire traumatic episode, my first crisis of faith, had been triggered not by good intentions, but rather by a diabolical corporation that cared not for me but just my dollars.
This was my great awakening to a truth I had never considered: that we vote for politicians once a year, or less, but with our pocketbooks multiple times every day. I simply could not continue my easy relationship with Coke knowing what I now knew. And not only could I not continue my easy relationship, I realized right then that I could never give another penny to this company, and so would never have another sip of my beloved Soda again. And I haven't.
Coca-Cola was of course just the very beginning of my realization that our shopping is intricately linked to our values. I have since had my eyes opened to this issue in a whole new way. For me this has become a deeply spiritual matter. I cannot claim to live a progressive and justice-seeking lifestyle and then simultaneously support companies with my hard-earned dollars that actively work against these very values every day on an epic scale.
For me, this means I cannot simply shop for value, meaning the best deal on the price of what I want to purchase.
Rather, I had to re-frame the entire concept of being a consumer for myself, to realize that shopping for my values often means doing a little more work, and sometimes even spending a little more money, but that giving my money to the right companies and people ultimately helps bring the values I care most about into this world, which is not saving a few dollars but rather helping free people from the nameless and wordless structures and systems that keep them in bondage and make it difficult for them to be their most authentic selves.
Once I realized that my money shapes the world in many more ways than my vote, I had to make a lot of changes. Rather than ever buy bottled water, I always have my water bottle with me. I avoid certain gas chains, and always try to buy local before going into a Walmart or other mega-chain. I look for Fair Trade and try as hard as I can to avoid all products made by the Koch Brothers and other brands that I have learned do not share my values, like the Salvation Army and Chic-Fil-A. I am not a zealot or extremist, so occasionally all these rules are violated, but it is my discipline to do the best I can: to shop for my values, rather than just for cheap goods.
As we move into the holiday season, once again the consumer orgy will begin. The moment you digest your Thanksgiving meal, the drumbeat will start. The siren call to spend and buy and purchase - new pieces of plastic destined for the landfill, rare-earth metals scraped from the sea floor, clothes made by children for pennies - will grow ever-present. Rather than advocate that anyone drop out of consumerism altogether, I am reminding us all that there is no better time to begin a more intentional relationship with the things you buy and the way you spend your money because, the truth is, your values depend on it.
May it be so this year, and always. Ashe.
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