Coca-Cola: A Meta Symbol?

26 Dec

In Andy Warhol’s words:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

If there is a food or beverage I truly cannot live without, it is Coca Cola. I won’t delve deeper into my infatuation (read addiction) with the drink but what I do find worth exploring is how an object of mass consumption that I simply enjoy as a consumer sitting in London has undoubtedly evolved into a commodity that has varied connotations across the globe. Warhol’s statement above embodies the pervasiveness of Coca Cola in cutting across socio-economic groups  as well as pays homage to the fizzy drink as a symbol of capitalism and Americanization.

During a trip to India in 2000, we visited the small city of Aligarh, in Northern India where my grandfather had attended university over 6 decades ago. We were shocked to discover that in a city with a population of half a million in a country that is an emerging market, no one had ever heard of Sprite. Yet now reflecting back on this observation, I wonder why that was such a surprising discovery. Did Sprite symbolize modernity, did it signify progress? Why were we not attracted to the locally produced drinks in the market and instead searched for a globalized drink?

Part of the answer lies in the ubiquitous search for global symbols of uniformity and familiarity. We walk into a McDonald’s in Berlin and Sao Paolo expecting to get exactly the same quality and taste as we would in any other city of the world. However, part of the story can be explained by what Coca Cola and Sprite – products of both mass production and consumption have come to symbolize and represent in many societies around the world.

Much of the impetus for this post comes from the article by anthropologist Danny Miller: Coca Cola: A Black Sweet Drink from Trinidad. He brands Coca Cola as a ‘meta-symbol’ thatmay be filled with anything those who wish to either embody or critique a form of symbolic domination might ascribe to it.” Miller goes on to equate Coca Cola with commodities or capitalism, which is a valid point. However, I would argue that growing up in Pakistan, I never saw Coca Cola as being an “American’ product. The Coke bottles we consumed from had Coca Cola inscribed in Urdu, advertisements on TV and in newspapers portrayed it as a drink of the masses with Pakistani sports personalities or celebrities promoting it. Infact, in primary school, I mostly enjoyed Coke from a plastic bag (yes, the thought makes me cringe now) with a straw going down the middle and a rubber band tying the bag together on top. The point being that as a consumer in Pakistan, it never occurred to me that Coca Cola was a foreign product, it had adopted a local meaning, a local context that appealed to the naive consumer that I was many years ago. It was and still is readily served by the cratefuls at weddings, favoured by many to open their fasts during Ramadan during which prices are slashed. While local drinks such as lassis, nimboo pani (lemonade) are popular and served in homes, they don’t have the same sort of mass appeal that carbonated drinks such as Pepsi, Coca Cola, Sprite etc have in a country where alcohol is not publicly sold or consumed (well, for the most part :-)).

Miller states that Coca Cola like McDonald’s is “not a trend or symbolic of trends…it is a particular image of globality that is held as a polarity against highly localized drinks.” Localized meanings of the drink thus become important in understanding how groups of people in specific regions view a product. In the case of Trinidad, the society that Miller studied, the combination of rum and coke became an “intensely local nationalistic” drink. The middle class and working classes in Trinidad did not perceive sweet drinks such as Coca Cola as imported luxuries but rather viewed it as Trinidadian – as the common person’s drink. This confirm the status of Coca Cola as a meta-symbol – the tremendous power and influence that a product has in a society such that it becomes not a want but a basic necessity.

Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world where Pepsi has higher sales than Coca Cola primarily due to Pepsi being endorsed by cricket players in the mass media. This really exemplifies the fact that successful marketing and advertising of global commodities is mostly geared towards the preferences and beliefs of consumers in the target market. Interestingly enough, unlike McDonald’s that has introduced a variation of mango lassi in Pakistan and a range of vegetarian burgers in India to cater to local tastes and religious dietary preferences, Coca Cola has not done anything similar. The product remains exactly the same but it’s the local marketing and branding that is modified.

Recently, I came across this map that was published by The Economist in 1997, which despite being 15 years old, does offer insight into Coke consumption patterns that are evidently concentrated in North America, parts of Europe and Australia and New Zealand – aka the developed world. It is worth noting, however, that Mexico and Central America also have very high Coca Cola consumption per capita. What explains this trend? Apparently in Chiapas, Mexico, Coca Cola is not simply a carbonated black drink but has a political role that intersects with religion and local belief systems. Pox is considered to be a sacred drink in a local religious belief that blends Catholicism and native traditions. The local elites who have political and economic influence have convinced the communities that pox needs to be consumed alongwith Coke or Pepsi as it induces burping, which releases evil from the soul. Due to this, sales of Coca Cola have sky-rocketed and those who benefit the most are the local elites who are affiliated with cola producers.

What does Coca Cola symbolize in your respective cultures? Any thoughts about this – please do share in the comments section.


Danny Miller. “Coca Cola: A Sweet Drink from Trinidad” in the Cultural Politics of Food and Eating. 20005. Edited by Watson and Campbell.

Cola Wars in Mexico”:



6 Responses to “Coca-Cola: A Meta Symbol?”

  1. mashgula December 27, 2010 at 12:30 PM #

    I’m a big fan of Coke (just regular Coke) and it seems that in Chile, where I live, people prefer Coke over Pepsi, which was one of the first things that caught my attention when I attended college in the US.
    Although Coke is a symbol of capitalism and the US itself, it is also something that seems to belong to every (western?) culture at some point, regardless the place where you are. I’ve been to other countries and it’s always the same: Coke seems to be part of the sodas you drink there.
    Interesting post, congrats!

    • Food Across Borders December 30, 2010 at 10:24 AM #

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences! Any particular reason you think people prefer Coke over Pepsi in Chile? Does it simply have to do with taste or is it the product of advertising, packaging or simply what Coca Cola has come to represent worldwide?

      • mashgula January 1, 2011 at 5:25 PM #

        I have no idea why people prefer Coke over Pepsi. Certainly, it’s not because of what it represents but I think it’s because it entered the market earlier and has developed much attractive and always-changing advertising.
        Also, I’ve heard that Coke is some sort of subliminal stimuli for people. You can see advertising everywhere (TV, radio, streets, subway stations, etc) so when people think of a soda, they would name Coke in first place, even if it’s not their favorite soda. And don’t forget the addicition a lot of people have– I’m one of them! So for me, there’s no other soda I would drink.

  2. Fiorenzo December 28, 2010 at 5:17 AM #

    Have a look at this video to see what non-profits can learn from the marketing and distribution strategy of Coca-Cola.

    • Food Across Borders December 30, 2010 at 12:23 PM #

      Thanks for sharing the video Fio. Many developmental lessons to be learnt from private sector companies such as Coca Cola. If I recall correctly they were the first corporation to provide employees with the option of getting tested for HIV/AIDS

  3. Coca Cola Bottles June 25, 2013 at 8:03 PM #

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