A storm of controversy arose over a Coca Cola ad that aired during the Super Bowl on Sunday.
The 60-second spot showed a thirsty Arab walking with a camel through the desert and craving a giant bottle of Coca Cola. He is quickly passed by a group of cowboys, Vegas-style showgirls and rebels modeled on characters from the film “Mad Max.”
Allowing fans to go online and choose who will win the race, the commercial didn’t include the possibility to vote for the Arab man. The exclusion and the Lawrence of Arabia stereotypical representation prompted the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Muslim Institute for Interfaith Studies to label the spot as racist.
The issue was resolved on Friday after Coca Cola offered an apology and explanation. Coca-Cola spokeswoman Lauren Thompson said the Arab character portrays a movie star filming his latest blockbuster as the race for Coke begins. The company didn’t want to tip viewers off about his expanded role in the ads until game time.
This isn’t the first time racism has been alleged in relation to the soft drink giant.
According to a recent analysis by a U.S. researcher, racially oriented arguments, more than health worries, had a role in Coca-Cola’s removal of cocaine at the beginning of the 20th century.
Writing in the New York Times, Grace Elizabeth Hale, professor of history and American studies at the University of Virginia, examined what she called a “long and often fractious history of soft drinks, prohibition laws and race.”
It all began with Vin Mariani — a “tonic wine” concocted from coca leaves and Bordeaux brought on the market in 1863 by a French chemist named Angelo Mariani.
The concoction contained 11 percent alcohol and 6.5 mg of cocaine in every ounce. The mix produced a third drug, a compound called cocaethlyene that satisfied hundreds of customers, including Queen Victoria, two U.S. presidents — Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley — the sculptor Auguste Rodin, the playwright Ibsen and Pope Leo XIII.
The pontiff appreciated the “tonic” so much that he even advertised it, appearing on a poster which proclaimed Vin Mariani’s virtues.
Indeed the advertisement described the wine as a “stimulant for the fatigued and over-worked body and brain” which nourished, fortified, refreshed, aided digestion, prevented “malaria, influenza and wasting diseases.”
The wine was also rumored to be “a most wonderful invigorator of the sexual organs” — a feature kept secret in the papal endorsement.
Mariani’s huge success inspired John Pemberton, a pharmacist from Atlanta, to create his own “French Wine Coca.” But in November 1885, when the product began to sell, Atlanta outlawed alcohol sales.
“Across the nation, support for prohibition was often tied to the desire by native whites to control European Catholics, American Indians, Asian-Americans and, especially in the South, African-Americans. It gave police officers an excuse to arrest African-Americans on the pretext of intoxication,” Hale wrote.
Pemberton wasn’t discouraged. He altered the recipe slightly and produced a new “temperance drink.” Thus was Coca-Cola born.
Distributed at the soda fountains of Atlanta pharmacies, and promoted as a drink to calm the nerves, Coca Cola soon became an “intellectual beverage” among well-off whites.
In 1891, when Asa G. Candler had already taken over the Coca Cola business, an Atlanta paper revealed that the drink’s recipe contained cocaine.
“Candler began marketing the drink as ‘refreshing’ rather than medicinal, and managed to survive the controversy,” Hale said.
Eight years later, when Coke left the soda fountains and made a fizzy debut in distinctive glass bottles, the social and race issues exploded.
“Anyone with a nickel, black or white, could now drink the cocaine-infused beverage. Middle-class whites worried that soft drinks were contributing to what they saw as exploding cocaine use among African-Americans,” Hale wrote.
According to the historian, southern newspapers reported that “negro cocaine fiends” were raping white women, the police unable to stop them.
Although cocaine wasn’t illegal until 1914, by 1903, Candler “bowed to white fears, removing the cocaine and adding more sugar and caffeine,” the historian wrote.
According to other reports, trace amounts remained in the soda until 1929, when the company perfected the cocaine alkaloid extraction.
The extraction is now carried at a New Jersey company called Stepan, which is basically the nation’s only legal cocaine lab.
It is said that between 100 and 200 metric tons of dried coca leaf are imported each year, mostly from Peru and Bolivia.
As the cocaine alkaloid is extracted, the leaf mulch is reportedly used as flavoring in the drink’ secret recipe.
Phil Mooney, Coca-Cola’s chief historian since 1977, strongly disagreed.
“Coca-Cola does not contain cocaine, and cocaine has never been an added ingredient for Coca-Cola,” he stated.
He sharply criticized Hale for trying to “link the history of America’s favorite and most inclusive drink to racism.”
“Coca-Cola has always been a drink for everyone,” he said.
Image: “Drink Coca-Cola 5¢”, an 1890s advertising poster showing a woman in fancy clothes drinking Coke. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.