Book review: Belching Out The Devil

Global Adventures With Coca-Cola by Mark Thomas

Maybe it’s the trillions spent on marketing, or some moreish component of their secret ingredient 7X, but it’s hard to even read the words Coca-Cola without fancying one of the ice-cold ‘sparkling beverages’.

But Mark Thomas’s hope is that you’ll soon link the name not just toobesity-inducing, teeth-rotting fizzy pop, but to unsavoury practices such as trade unionists murdered at bottling plants, child labour toiling in sugar fields or factories draining water away from desperate Indian farmers. Read this book, and you will never want to drink Coke again.

One comedian-cum-activist’s campaign might make a small dent in the company’s global profits, but every little helps, because for Coca-Cola, image is everything. Its brand is worth a staggering $65billion – which is pretty good for a company that only actually makes a gloopy, flavoured syrup, as Thomas points out. The drink is mostly water, and as all the manufacturing and distribution is franchised out, often to local companies in the Third World, in countries with dubious records on human rights, let alone labour rights, means it’s incredibly cheap to make. What its billions of customers are paying for is not just the ingredients and the labour, but something much more intangible: the Coke name.

This is how global capitalism works, of course: companies in the West getting richer not from actually making anything – cheap workers hidden in far-off nations do that – but by being masters of image and marketing. Because everyone’s doing it, you can see a certain reasoning behind the hapless Coke publicist’s plaintive cry of: ‘Why are you picking on us?’ when Thomas bombards them with yet another batch of difficult questions.

His simple answer is not just that Coca-Cola is a vast, powerful company pumping out a product no one needs and whose behaviour ought to be questioned, but that other companies, such as Pepsi, ‘simply do not have the same amount of human rights about allegations lined up against them’.

To examine these claims, Thomas jets to some of the less salubrious corners of the world; making his book part light-hearted travelogue, part passionate polemic, part investigative documentary: Michael Palin meets Michael Moore, with Wodward & Bernstein taking notes.

He first travels to Colombia, where leaders of a trade union at a bottling plant have a tendency to wind up murdered. The ‘lucky’ ones simply get intimidated and threatened with death. We tend to think of people who risk their lives to secure their fellow workers basic rights as historical figures, folk heroes from the past, but Thomas finds these inspirational figuresalive and kicking against powerful foes today.

Deliverymen who work 18-hour days for £100 a month are likewise dissuaded from unionising, a situation repeated in Turkey, where workers staged a sit-in at a Coke plant. Management did agree to meet them, but as talks were nearing conclusion, riot police charged in, attacking the peaceful, if illegal, protestors. Thomas meets some of those involved before moving on to El Salvador, in search of children working in the sugar cane fields that supply Coke. No surprise that he finds them, as in this grindingly poor nation, children have to work to survive.

Then to the Jaipur district of India, to investigate claims that a factory Coke inexplicably decided to build in a perennially drought-stricken region, is drawing so much water from the underground reserves that farmers and impoverished communities suffer. This is the one part of the book that does get rather convoluted, as the emphasis moves from the human to the science of whether so-called ‘rainwater harvesting’ works, and whether Coke’s claims to be doing it hold if you’ll excuse the pun, water.

Next stop Mexico, to prove the multinational’s reach is so all-encompassing that remote communities use it in ancient religious ceremonies, giving this book its title.

For all the grim places Thomas visits, none is grimmer than the Coca-Cola headquarters, where a ‘museum’ dubbed The Happiness Factory pushes an image of the company more saccharine even than the drinks it pushes. Where the fantastical advert about how a Coke is made inside a vending machine by insects and penguins is genuinely billed as ‘documentary’.

Thomas considers Coke’s official response to his claims no less fanciful. They often absolve themselves from blame as it is franchisees whose practices are suspect – even though Coke sets the rules and often owns a hefty stake in the local companies – or by stating that Thomas is simply raking over old stories.

But their dry corporate statements, full of meaningless buzzwords, are in stark contrast to Thomas’s passionate, easy prose. ‘Trying to get The Coca-Cola Company to answer a question directly is like trying to run a quiz night in an Alzheimer’s care home,’ he concludes. Admittedly, not the greatest joke, but it’s that sort of writing that mean the book cracks along, not deadened by the statistics, the technicalities, and Coke’s insipid and vacuous PR guff.

The company, Thomas concludes, sees any criticism as simply a problem about not projecting the right message, rather than highlighting something that genuinely needs acting upon. After all, Coke spends $665billion a year on pushing its image – more than 33 times the budget of the United Nations and all its operations – so that’s where its focus is on. After reading Thomas’s revealing book, you’d wish more of that went on helping the people who work for, with and near Coca-Cola Company around the world.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
October 2008

  • Belching Out The Devil: Global Adventures With Coca-Cola is published by Ebury Press, priced £11.99. Click here to order from Amazon for £7.19 with free delivery.

    Published: 16 Oct 2008

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