Sunday, 29 August 2010

Coca Cola as a Symbol in World Cinema

                      America isn't a single product - it's not Coca Cola

                                                                                        William Rugh

Coca Cola is recognisable the world over, a resilient product and a powerful image. Is it any wonder that it alone survives in Blade Runner's Los Angeles of 2019. Bit by bit its bottles have become empty ciphers to be filled with all kinds of meaning; good, bad and neither. There are plentiful examples of Coca Cola ceasing to mean Coca Cola and turning metonymic for America, for Capitalism, for the quotidian.

Being one of America's most successful brands Coca Cola has been used as an apt stereotyped example of big business. There is a long history of American films that talk of the ills of being a cog in an impersonal commercial wheel and trumpet the joys of returning to a simpler life. Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961) and Dusan Makavejev's The Coca Cola Kid (1985) both concern Coca Cola executives who discover that there is more of value in life than market value.

Coca Cola has long sought to associate itself closely with the United States in the public consciousness and, given Coca Cola's fame, vice versa. This explains the traction of quasi-mythical tales like the one that tells of Coke bottles being smashed on runways to puncture Japanese plane tyres during World War II.

In Superman II it becomes an ally in the American Way, a bright red electronic mitt to catch alien invaders.

Yet Coca Cola has come to represent, in certain films, an invasion of its own - of capitalism, of Western perspectives.
Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring shows an advertisement as a mark of the arrival of the West in Japan. Shohei Imamura's Profound Desires of the Gods concerns an engineer arriving on an isolated and backward Japanese island to build a well for a sugar mill. A few shots of Coca Cola signs and labels function as shorthand for the arrival of money and of business. A more damning twist comes in The Gods Must be Crazy where a Coca Cola bottle is first worshipped and then fought over. It comes to stand for the idea of property, a foreign virus whose symptoms are jealousy and violence.

Here the commonness of Coca Cola brings humour. In Italian film 7Km from Jerusalem Jesus is shown drinking from a can. This caused much controversy, presumably because the drink is made cheap by its simple, mundane ubiquity. It means normality. It is much the same in Abel Ferrara's Chelsea on the Rocks in which the hero is dying to have a drink of Coke, despite knowing that it will probably kill him. Dr.Strangelove too makes us laugh at the earnest, deadpan pompousness of the general who is reluctant to harm the vending machine:

            "You know what's gonna happen to you?....You're gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company"

*            *            *

Sometimes it really is seen as representing an invasion that needs to be fought off, a viewpoint summed up here by a Mexican painter, as well as two highly-regarded directors:

                  "This brand is for me a symbol of a new aggression and so we have Coca Cola Cinema and music, Coca Cola architecture, Coca Cola graphics and art"

                                                                 Chavez Murado

                  "The World is not only bright lights, this hectic pace, the Coca Cola with a straw, the new car"

                                                                  Krzysztof Kieslowski

                  "People cease to feel any need for the beautiful or the spiritual and consume films like bottles of Coca Cola"

                                                                   Andrei Tarkovsky

There is the perception of an arrogance, a bullying in an American imperialism under the Coca Cola banner. The Italian animated film Allegro Non Troppo has the process of evolution begin in a Coca Cola bottle, gently mocking perceived American solipsism - 'the world begins and ends on our shores'. The irony is that Allegro Non Troppo is based on American classic Fantasia, betraying the fact that those who criticise are willing to consume if only to spit it out again.

Emptiness and consumption, then. Indeed, in Robert Bresson's Le Diable, Probablement a gaggle of empty Coke bottles sitting on the floor represent disposability, empty lives and emptiness itself:

     "All I've got left is an old sweater and the Coke bottles to take back"

In other words, nothing. Many films use Coca Cola to symbolise emptiness and cheapness, a lack of refinement and "culture" (meant as culture deemed positive and nourishing, as you cannot lack culture).

 Le Diable, Probablement

However, the arrival of an American, Western culture is not always slanted towards the negative or the pejorative. Its striking bright red banner and its iconic bottle, used as a cigarette-like prop, retains a certain kudos and cool, much as the glamour of Old Hollywood - take Wong Kar Wai's Days of Being Wild as an example.

To go still further the massive Coca Cola banner unfurled on the side of a building in Goodbye Lenin! is a sign of the fall of Communism and in Peter Wang's A Great Wall (in which a Chinese child is promised a Coke bottle for completing his exams) we realise that the cultures are closer than we first thought.

Yes, some film-makers may want to reject what they think Coca Cola stands for but they embrace it too because they are a product of their times as much as anyone else: "Children of Marx and Coca Cola", as Jean-Luc Godard says in Masculin, Feminin.

Goodbye Lenin!


  1. This is a formidable survey of CC in films, Stephen. I haven't even heard of many films you mention. The examples you take run the gamut. Really commendable effort here.

  2. I might also add the seemingly purposefully anachronism of modern-day Coca Cola in Mike Nichol's film of Tony Kushner's 80's-set "Angels in America" (Joe Pitt should be drinking the infamous New Coke along with his hot-dogs and Pepto-Bismol). Also, there's the ubiquitous cliche description of "Coke bottle thick" glasses, although that's more of a vernacular thing (present in Spalding Gray's filmed monologues, though). Perhaps the best example of something that I wish I could add here is my favorite Rorschach quote from Alan Moore's "Watchmen", that wasn't included on film:

    "42nd Street: Women's breasts draped across every billboard, every display, littering the sidewalk. Was offered Swedish love and French love, but not American love. American love; like Coke in green glass bottles, they don't make it anymore."

    Funny, all this and I never even drink the stuff, myself.

  3. I must say Stephen there is no end to your creativity. I am amazed at some of the ideas you come up with, and this one is fascinating! I will again be seeing LATE SPRING next week in the Ozu Festival, and I well remember that display, as I do (infamously as you note) in THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY. I remember the grand display in GOODBYE LENIN and much appreciate that two quotes there from Kieslowski and Tarkovsky.

    Geez, this would make for a thesis, if expanded further. One of your great pieces in a tremendous week, I might add.

  4. I agree with Sam's last point. I might expand it to the use of corporate symbology in cinema, and the point at which in-place advertising becomes real commentary. Coke is as good a starting place as any.

  5. Really interesting topic, Stephen. I'm amazed at the variety of films you mention to illuminate Coke's position in modern media. I'd love to see this in an expanded form with pictorial accompaniment. Great work!

  6. Bob,

    That's interesting about "Angels in America". If I was around at the time of the release of New Coke I don't remember it. Reading up on its history I didn't realise what a (minor) furore it caused.

    I forgot about "Coke bottle thick glasses" (one of the essential pieces of geek armour in film) and thanks for reminding me of that bit in Watchmen. There's some very good writing in the Graphic Novel.

  7. Sam,

    Thanks so much for the kind comments and for your encouragement.

    "Geez, this would make for a thesis, if expanded further."

    I was considering doing exactly that, Sam, but decided (for now) to write up a shorter version because of time constraints. I will be working on expanding it and hope I can put together something more substantial in the future.

  8. Bob,

    "...and the point at which in-place advertising becomes real commentary."

    That is an interesting angle and one that opens the discourse up far beyond just Coca Cola.

    As I told Sam I would like to try to go further with this.

  9. Thanks a lot Carson.

    I was surprised too at the instances of Coca Cola in films. It occurred to investigate and write this when watching Bresson's film - suddenly I was reminded of the other times I had seen it.

    As I have said, I really would like to go wider and deeper with the topic if I can.

  10. Just remembered another famous movie Coca Cola moment-- Oliver Stone's "JFK", which traces Lee Harvey Oswald's path during his alleged assasination of the President, noting that while he should be running to get away from the scene, he instead "buys a Coke". That's more a piece of Americana, of course-- a similar scene is shown an the "X-Files" episode where the Cigarette Smoking Man shoots Kennedy from the sewers while Oswald buys a root beer. I think Coke imagery can be found in the film, though, in Dealy Plaza.

    Also-- weren't Coke bottles used in blood transfusions during the attack on Pearl Harbor, as seen in Michael Bay's (awful) film? Another example of Coke as a piece of Americana.

  11. Oh damn-- Speaking of Oliver Stone, there's also the Coca Cola polar bear commercial during the serial-killer interview portion of "Natural Born Killers". As well as the Cokes that Travolta and Thurman share in "Pulp Fiction" at Jack Rabbit Slim's, ironically before Thurman nearly OD's on drugs.

  12. Well remembered, Bob. I don't recall the JFK moment even now you've mentioned it. Sounds like a very pointed use - if, of course, he didn't actually do so in real life.

    The PEARL HARBOUR instance is ringing a bell. I really liked the attack scene itself and I didn't find it anywhere near as awful as people say.

    Thanks for this. If I write an extended thesis I hope I can steal these examples off you.

  13. Perhaps I'm a little hard on "Pearl Harbor" because my high school history class was actually taken to see it as some sort of educational experience. The only things anyone picked up were all the Japanese racial slurs. A real nightmare for a Japanophile like me.

    Even if LHO did assasinate Kennedy by himself (which nobody in their right mind really believes-- maybe he was one gunman, but there had to be at least two more), he still probably did get that Coke. That happened after Kennedy was shot. It might be one of the few pieces of the puzzle that's unquestionable. We may never know who really killed the President, but we do know what Lee Harvey Oswald was drinking, afterwards.

    Here's a loooong list of movies. I think it's only American films, though. The coolest addition it provides-- "It's a Wonderful Life" :

  14. Aha,

    I didn't know about the Coke and Lee Harvey Oswald. As for the assassination, I don't feel nearly knowledgeable enough to make a judgment.

    Thanks for the link. I did look over that list but I really wanted to concentrate more on foreign (to the US) cinema where the symbolism is more complex and intriguing.

    If I expand the piece the proportion of foreign cinema would be still greater than in what I have written here.

    In some ways PEARL HARBOUR is now a symbol of cheap, overblown and empty Hollywood cinema(!)

  15. I don't know for sure but I'm willing to bet that the majority of the appearances made by Coca Cola in these films is incidental and insignificant - just a drink.

  16. I'm sure you're right. In some cases, like the Capra film, it's great to see Coke as a long-lasting piece of the American fabric. In the rest of the cases, however, it's just a part of modern-day ubiquitous consumerism. It's interesting in foreign films where the effect is clearly more intentional, but here it's really just done without thinking.

    A thought-- Wasn't Coca Cola instrumental in popularizing the figure of Santa Claus in America during Christmastime? Obviously they didn't invent him, but still. So there's that, potentially, too.

    I'm fascinated by films that stand as symbols for movements in film, or even cinema in general. Obviously you have all the watershed moment movies ("Wizard of Oz", "Citizen Kane", "Star Wars", "Pulp Fiction") and there's the sentimental favorites ("Gone With the Wind", "Casablanca", "The Godfather"), the infamous failures ("Cleopatra", "Heaven's Gate", "Waterworld") and the one-time duds, turned future cult-classics ("Metropolis", "Rocky Horror", "Blade Runner").

    "Pearl Harbor" is part of a modern crop of action-dramas that are part "Titanic" in their historic scale and romantic scope, and part "Indiana Jones" in their explosive action sequences. Perhaps it's a reach back to the days of "Gone With the Wind", where sentimental love-stories were set against the backdrop of historical spectacle, but all it does is drudge back all the superficial qualities of those old films. Whenever people say "they don't make'em like they used to," I always say "yes, they do; do you think a computer really makes a difference?".

  17. "A thought-- Wasn't Coca Cola instrumental in popularizing the figure of Santa Claus in America during Christmastime? Obviously they didn't invent him, but still. So there's that, potentially, too."

    I believe so. I suppose Santa is seen too, in some quarters, as a figurehead for a more commercialised / shallow Yuletide.

    It's true what you say about individual films becoming shorthand for a whole type of film or its fate. I wonder if they ever said "they don't make 'em like they used to" in those days too.

  18. The Santa transformation of Christmas from a religious event into a commercial one doesn't really bother me so much, because it effectively secularizes the holiday. Sure, the birth of Christ is important (I grew up Catholic myself), but I much prefer the season to be more about the people in one's life than about going to Church. Granted, there's the dominant ugly side of greed and poverty that gets highlighted thanks to the marketplace realities of the whole thing, too, but I prefer to think of the charitable side of X-Mas, a spirit that's personified in the jolly old elf, himself. I just wish more took the "giving" part of the holiday more seriously than the "recieving" part. It should really be something like a more practical version of Lent-- instead of "giving up" something in your life by blindly abstaining to God, you could be "giving up" something to your fellow man, and making a genuine, material sacrifice. You could, for example, buy the world a Coke.

  19. "I just wish more took the "giving" part of the holiday more seriously than the "recieving" part."

    I agree on that, Bob. I don't tend to see Christmas as shallow or commercialised (though it has become rather detached from its core meaning). I was talking about what some people see it as.

    I still see a lot of joy in giving in the people around the streets. If people aren't referring directly to or thinking of the birth of Jesus at least they are celebrating the same message - the love of family.

    "You could, for example, buy the world a Coke."

    Hah! Or teach it to sing.

  20. Another addition, since I'm checking the old threads here, is Hideaki Anno's directorial debut, the OVA "GunBuster" has a very nice use of Coca Cola-- a girl mecha-pilot shares a drink with a boy she has a crush on in the vending-machine area of their massive star-cruiser before a big battle. I can't remember if they actually share a Coke or not, but the soda machine there is emblazoned with their logo, so it's very possible. What makes the scene sweet is both her blushing from absent-mindedly sipping from his straw after he's used it (a "second-hand kiss") and how she returns to that area to "talk" to the boy after he's lost in a battle. Even in outer-space, Coke becomes an emblem for teenage nostalgia.

  21. That sounds very sweet (in more ways than one). I'm actually still researching the use of Coca-Cola as a symbol in film. It's very interesting (at least for me). This is a fine addition, Bob. Thanks.

    Do you have any idea what episode this is or where I might find it? I'd like to watch it.

  22. The 'cause' was helped significantly by the fact that Coca Cola owned Columbia Pictures for a long time. Talk about vertical integration.

  23. Yes,

    I've only just discovered that - they owned it for seven years.