15 Events in the Shady History of Coca-Cola

The history of Coca-Cola is even more fraught than you’d expect for a product based on cocaine.
15 Events in the Shady History of Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola’s marketers famously threatened to buy the world a Coke, and boy, did they make good on their promise. Through greed, colonization, and more than a little racism, the history of Coca-Cola is even more fraught than you’d expect for a product based on cocaine.

Yes, It Contained Cocaine

Pemberton's French Wine Coca advertisement

(J. P. Harrison & Co./Wikimedia Commons)

This isn’t as shady as it sounds: Cocaine was perfectly legal at the time John Pemberton began marketing his French Coca Wine in the 1880s. Coca wine -- which is exactly what it sounds like -- was a popular drink at the time, Pemberton’s unique twist being the addition of kola nut, hence its eventual name, Coca-Cola.

It Was Intended to Wean People Off Morphine

John Pemberton

(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Pemberton was a Civil War vet who ended up addicted to morphine as a result of his injuries, as did a whole lot of dudes his age, so his initial experiments with drinkable cocaine, which was considered much less harmful, were mostly focused on finding a less gnarly substitute for morphine. Considering Coke’s enduring popularity at NA meetings and rehab centers, you can’t say he was on the wrong path.

Then It Was Sold As An Alternative to Alcohol

1890s Coca-Cola advertisement

(Library of Congess/Wikimedia Commons)

Pemberton was ever adaptable: Soon after he started selling his coca wine, the Georgia county where he lived outlawed alcohol consumption, so he simply replaced the wine with a sugar syrup, changed the name, and created the slogan “Coca-Cola: The temperance drink.” Keep in mind that it was still totally cocaineful, and even now, Coca-Cola contains tiny traces of alcohol as a natural byproduct of its manufacturing processes.

Then It Was Sold As Medicine

An old Coca Cola advertisement

(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Pre-Google society was shockingly dumb and easily wowed by things like bubbles, so they assumed carbonated water was better for you than stupid tap water. Pemberton was quick to seize on this opportunity by marketing Coca-Cola as a medicine, treating and preventing everything from indigestion to malaria. He even claimed it was “a most wonderful invigorator of sexual organs." You heard it here first: Coke makes your junk better.

Its Next Owner Bought It At a Funeral

Asa Candler

(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

By 1887, Pemberton had brought several investors into the Coca-Cola Company as partners, including Asa Candler, a move he would have certainly regretted if he’d lived long enough to see its consequences. After he died the next year, the rights to the name passed on to his widow and the formula to his son, Charley, who was also something of a wayward drug addict. According to legend, Candler bought the name at Pemberton’s funeral by offering his distraught widow $300 for it, and Charley Pemberton soon conveniently died of a drug overdose and a mysterious fire destroyed all evidence of the Pemberton family’s legal rights to the business. Basically, don’t mess with Asa Candler.

Its First Controversy Was About Caffeine

In 1911, the U.S. government sued Coca-Cola to remove a dangerous stimulant from its product -- not cocaine but caffeine. The trial was a real roller coaster, featuring expert witnesses whose testimony backfired when they said that caffeine was actually fine, a successful argument by Coke that it wasn’t a naturally occurring ingredient rather than an additive, and then the swift reversal of that decision. In the end, Coke had to cut its caffeine content in half.

They Only Took The Cocaine Out Because of Racism

Coca leaves

(Darina/Wikimedia Commons)

As for the cocaine, it had already been removed in 1903, but not for any DEA-y reasons. Rumors started to spread that Georgia was beset by black men assaulting white women in Coke-intoxicated frenzies, and Candler wasn’t about that bad press, so he removed the cocaine and also cut all ties to black consumers for good measure. Note that Coca-Cola still contains coca leaf extract, it’s just had the good stuff removed first.

The Real Reason Pepsi Became a Competitor

Coretta Scott King at Dr. King's funeral

(Moneta Sleet, Jr./Wikimedia Commons)

In fact, Coca-Cola’s troubled history with the black community is the whole reason Pepsi managed to enter the market so successfully in the ‘40s. They aggressively courted the black dollar, hiring all-black sales teams and placing advertisements featuring black entertainers in black publications. It worked so well that by 1968, Coca-Cola was personally flying Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow to his funeral (while still reportedly discriminating against black employees, however).

They Got Mixed Up in Apartheid

At the height of apartheid in South Africa, Coca-Cola was one of the country’s largest employers, leading to boycotts in the ‘80s. In 1986, they made noises about closing down their South African bottling and canning operations, but they never truly left the country, and experts at the time predicted the move would make “no financial difference at all” to the company.

1990’s Disastrous MagiCans

In the summer of 1990, Coke started distributing what they called “MagiCans” full of prizes instead of sweet, sweet sugar water, spring-loaded to pop out at you when you open the can that also contained foul-smelling chlorinated water to discourage people from drinking from the cans in case a New Kids on the Block ticket in their face didn’t do the trick. The cans were completely unmarked so no one would know if it was a regular can of Coke or a cylindrical scratch ticket. Coke somehow didn’t see where this was going, but you probably do: Tons of the cans didn’t work, people drank them, and one boy even went to the hospital because his parents, who had no idea about the promotion, assumed product tampering.

Tapping Into the Education Market

Coke vending machines

(Azchael/Wikimedia Commons)

In the ‘90s, Coca-Cola started taking advantage of underfunded schools by offering lucrative contracts for exclusively selling its products in campus vending machines. They even offered sales bonuses or commissions, incentivizing schools to pump their kids as full of caffeine as possible if they wanted those textbooks.

Their Animal Testing Was Exceptionally Horrific

Chimpanzee face

(Francesco Ungaro/Unsplash)

It’s a sad fact of modern capitalism that many corporations have a history of -- or even continue to perform -- animal testing, but Coca-Cola’s was like something about of a dystopian novel. One study involved cutting open the faces of chimpanzees “to study nerve impulses used in the perception of sweet tastes.” Having apparently realized there are other ways to test that (or it’s just not worth it to go Face/Off on some monkeys just to find out people like sweet things), the company pledged to cease unnecessary animal testing in 2007.

They Pay Scientists to Say Coke is Healthy

In 2015, it was found that Coca-Cola had provided millions of dollars in funding to scientists with the Global Energy Balance Network. That’s nice, right? Well, it wasn’t entirely altruistic: The organization’s chief contribution to the discourse has been insisting that exercise is the key to health, not diet, which suits Coca-Cola quite nicely. So nicely, in fact, that they’ve paid for the only studies they cite to prove that. Coke has even been caught paying nutritionists to promote their products as “healthy snacks.”

They Wanted to Stay in Russia

While other companies tripped over each other in their haste to pull out of Russia during its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Coke stood firm, refusing to close down their Russian facilities. Only the threat of massive boycotts convinced them to change their tune just two days later. See a pattern?

Sinaltrainal v. Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola bottles

(Opollo Photography/Unsplash)

It’s generally a bad look to have a section on your Wikipedia page labeled “Colombian death-squad allegations,” which refers in Coke’s case to a 1996 incident at a Colombian bottling plant where an armed militia killed a union leader, destroyed the union hall, and forced employees to quit at gunpoint so they could be replaced with much cheaper workers. The workers sued the company for indirect responsibility, but Coca-Cola was never found to be connected to the militia, although it worked out pretty well for them and they barely addressed the incident beyond pulling a Shaggy and insisting “It wasn’t us.” Like, you’re one of the biggest corporations in the world. You can’t do something for your death-squad victims?

Top image: Mark J. Sebastian/Wikimedia Commons

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