Santa Claus: we all know him. He's the pudgy, jolly fellow with the ample white beard, dressed (of course!) in his bright red suit with the white trimmings. He's wholesome, he's all-American, he's traditional... and this image of him is largely an invention of Coca-Cola. Pre-Coke, "Santa" was St. Nick, who was sometimes depicted as slim, sometimes as fat; sometimes wearing red but more often dressed in yellow or blue. But Coca-Cola's ad men wanted a Santa dressed in their brand's trademark colors of red and white, so that's what their illustrators gave them, and that's the image that took root in popular culture. Jolly old Santa, seller of Coca-Cola!
If this shocks you, be prepared to be amazed by The Cola Conquest. Have you ever really thought about how much you're influenced by advertising? How some brands just seem to be part of everyday life... without showing the signs of how hard companies work to make them seem that way? Do you take for granted that a drink that's 95% sugar water should be such a popular first choice for refreshment, instead of more traditional, healthier, cheaper, and tastier options? Were you part of the "Pepsi Generation" and did you have a strong opinion about "Coke Classic"... and did you ever wonder why changing the color of a label on a bottle of soda should be an international media event?
Consumerism is the way of life in the U.S. today, and no one product embodies consumerism more than Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the two giants of soft drinks. The Cola Conquest takes a long, hard look at the origins and operations of these giants of global capitalism, showing to what extent business issues (making a profit on a bottle of soda) have shaped cultural and even individual identities in this age of advertising.
The Cola Conquest is subtitled "A Trilogy," and it indeed consists of three parts, each with a different title and focusing on a different aspect of the overall topic.
"The Big Sell" opens by taking a look at the origins and early history of Coca-Cola, all the way back to the formula's invention by a Civil War veteran desperately searching for a cure for his morphine addiction. While the cocaine- and caffeine-laden beverage got its start as a patent medicine, a "brain tonic," it soon became (sans cocaine) a popular option for perfectly healthy folks at the soda fountains. From this fascinating beginning, "The Big Sell" traces the development of the brand as a brand, showing how the manipulation of image through advertising was essential from the very beginning. As the program comes closer to the present day, touching on various aspects of Coca-Cola's role in the near-religion of consumerism, it becomes somewhat more unfocused, but it remains an engrossing look at a marketing machine of astounding proportions.
"Cola War and Peace" covers some of the same ground as the first episode, though with a slightly different focus. It's not as tightly organized as "The Big Sell," but two main themes are developed throughout the piece. First is the "Cola war" between Coke and Pepsi: the Goliath of the premier brand with its firm hold on the public, and the David of the upstart competitor. But along with this war for market share, we learn about the positions that Coca-Cola and Pepsi took in the Cold War, and how the first "coca-colonization" of the world began.
The third part of the trilogy is "Coca-colonization," which focuses on the attempts by both Coca-Cola and Pepsi to expand into the global market. There's quite a bit of detail here on the cola advance into the Soviet Union (both during and after the Cold War), France, and China (where Coca-Cola is determined to break a three-thousand-year-old tradition of drinking tea). How does the introduction of Coca-Cola change a culture? What does it mean to drink a Coke in France, Russia, or Guatemala? The documentary raises some interesting points about how culture is shaped (especially youth culture), about the "imperialistic consumerism" of the United States, and about the triumph of advertising over the quality of the product itself.
One of the key aspects of The Cola Conquest is its total objectivity on the subject. This is not a program that's critical of Coca-Cola; nor is it celebrating the company. Instead, the documentary is taking a clear-eyed look at the origins, methods, and fundamental nature of a brand that has come to represent "America"... while becoming a trans-national juggernaut.
The Cola Conquest packaging offers a great solution to bilingual packaging. The DVD cover art and the DVD insert have their text both in English and in French, but the cover of the DVD case is English-only... because the French version is printed on the other side. So if you were to order this disc from a Canadian retailer and you get the French cover, all you have to do is flip the cover insert over.
The Cola Conquest is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. It's of satisfactory image quality for the most part, especially since much of the footage is archival material (sometimes more than a hundred years old) and material from television broadcasts. The main flaw in the transfer is that it is extremely pixellated. Colors look good, however, and the picture is bright and clean; it's watchable.
The stereo soundtrack for The Cola Conquest offers a satisfactory listening experience. The various interviewees and the narrator sound clear, and the music is blended into the overall track appropriately. A French soundtrack is also provided.
The main bonus feature here is a commentary track for "The Big Sell," with director Irene Angelico and producer Abbey Neidik. The remaining special features are fairly limited. An insert inside the DVD gives a brief outline of the idea behind the film. On the DVD itself, we get trailers for The Cola Conquest, Horns and Halos, and Family. There's also a rather odd 19-minute featurette, which is an interview session with Michael Galinsky, the co-director of Horns and Halos. Apart from sharing a production company, this has nothing to do with The Cola Conquest, so I'm not sure why it's here.
What is it about Coca-Cola, a product that's 99% sugar and water, that makes it such a potent symbol of all things American? What does the history of the Coca-Cola company, and its biggest rival, Pepsi, tell us about the role of advertising in creating a consumer society? Why do we drink this stuff? While the three parts of this documentary trilogy could have been tightened up into a somewhat shorter and more focused program, overall The Cola Conquest does a solid job of presenting its core subject. It's a very interesting and well-researched program that will be of interest to a broad audience; I'll give it a solid "recommended."