By Hailey Oppenlander (’22)
Coca-Cola is refreshing and bright, cool to the tongue. It is presented in a variety of situations and packages: in a nostalgic glass bottle; in a can that satisfyingly clicks as you pop the tab, still dripping after being pulled out of a cooler on a blistering summer day; or in a cheap styrofoam cup at Subway or McDonald’s. But Coca-Cola is more than just a beverage; it serves as a myth representing American capitalism.
At its most basic level, a myth is a level of speech that communicates meaning. It has an intention that is not necessarily hidden, but is read as natural rather than socially constructed. Myths are context-dependent and thus cannot be eternal, yet they are taken to be immutable facts. In his seminal book Mythologies, Roland Barthes explains that “the very principle of myth” is that “it transforms history into nature” (1). According to Barthes, myth is the association between the signifier and the signified, or the level of connotation (2). For example, the first linguistic order takes the physical Coca-Cola bottle or drink and labels it as Coca-Cola (denotation). Myth derives from what Coca-Cola signifies to a certain society or group, or its connotation. As a myth regarding “Americanness,” Coca-Cola communicates American capitalism and its values of individuality, imperialism, and plentifulness.
Coca-Cola allows for individuality, a value deeply ingrained in American society and history. There are a plethora of different flavors and types, from Diet Coke to Cherry Coke to Coke Zero, giving each person the illusion of choice disguised under a narrative of self-expression; each person can pick a drink that uniquely suits them. A few years ago, Coca-Cola even introduced bottles that have names on their labels, so you could search for one with your moniker or find one for a friend. In this marketing strategy, Coca-Cola is seen as a conduit of expression for each unique person, and yet this individuality still leads to an American unity under one brand of Coca-Cola. It presents an idealized view of the United States as a diverse group of people who can ultimately come together as one. The full suite of flavor options available also shows how individualism is intertwined with capitalism, giving consumers an illusion of choice or self-expression despite the fact that their purchases lead to profit for the same company as Coca-Cola continually develops new products, flavors, or packaging.
The words “Coca-Cola” can refer to both a drink and a company, which is telling of the role of capitalism in its mythology. It is not just a drink, but a corporation deeply ingrained in the exploitation of natural resources (sugar, aluminum, plastic, and more) characteristic of large corporations. Barthes writes of wine, “For it is true that wine is a good and fine substance, but it is no less true that its production is deeply involved in French capitalism” (1). This description also applies to Coca-Cola. Even though consumers often ignore or remain ignorant of the company’s practices and history, the drink cannot be separated from its role in American capitalism, even in its very name.
Scholars like historian Reinhold Wagnleitner have used the term “coca-colonization” to describe how Coca-Cola served as an imperialistic project, acting as a symbol of American capitalism in Communist countries after World War II (3). Coca-Cola is a type of soft power, showing the appeal of American life and spreading a capitalist agenda through a desirable product. It boasts, “Look at what we have in America!,” symbolizing a land of plenty and a land of choices. In the New York Times, author Mark Pendergrast called the drink “capitalism’s flagship” (4). Coca-Cola’s distinctive red packaging also gives off a patriotic, American feel.
The myth of Coca-Cola is gendered, seen in the advertising strategies used for different products. In “Gender for Dummies Part 4: Coca Cola!,” a YouTube content creator who produces satire and informational videos regarding gender shows how Coca-Cola “light” versions with no calories or added sugars (perceived as a healthier option in a way that is also gendered, as women are taught to watch their diets to obtain perfect bodies) have a more feminine advertising strategy, featuring a lighter color palette for the product (5). The commercials for Diet Coke showcase a backyard barbecue with a group of women sitting and laughing together, staring at a shirtless man. There is one token person of color among the group of women, again presenting an over-simplified, idealized view of the United States that trivializes real systemic differences and rebrands them as “individuality” or commodified difference within a unified America. To appeal to men, the company also developed Coca-Cola Zero (referring to zero added sugars), which has a “masculine” marketing strategy. Its black packaging signals manliness and toughness. The Coca-Cola Zero commercial tells consumers to “unlock the 007 in you,” as it was released alongside the 2012 film Skyfall (5). The association with the James Bond film further lends masculine credibility to the drink. The two drinks have essentially the same taste, yet target different consumers. This shows the intersections of gender and capitalism; people will spend money on a product to perform their gender. Judith Butler conceptualizes gender as performance, claiming that people must constantly assert or enact their gender since it is not an essential or inherent biological quality, leading them to spend money on different products to perform it correctly (6). As the video narrator notes, “Gender is one big money machine” (5).
E.J. Kahn, writer for The New Yorker, called Coca-Cola “a fluid that . . . is indispensable to, and symbolic of, the American way of life” (7). Coca-Cola serves as both a product of American capitalism and an essential component of it. More than just a beverage, it represents the ideals of individualism, consumer choice, superficial unity, and even gender expectations under American capitalism through its production and marketing strategies.
Hailey Oppenlander is an American Studies and Sociology major at the University of Notre Dame. Her article was originally written for Professor Perin Gürel’s American Studies course ‘Gender and Popular Culture.’
- Barthes, Roland. “Wine and Milk.” In Mythologies, 79-82. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
- Barthes, Roland. “Part II: Myth Today.” In Mythologies, 215-273. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
- Wagnleitner, Reinhold. Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria after the Second World War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
- Pendergrast, Mark. “Viewpoints; A Brief History of Coca-Colonization.” New York Times, Aug. 15, 1993. https://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/15/business/viewpoints-a-brief-history-of-coca-colonization.html.
- Peachyoghurt Genderfree. “Gender for Dummies Part 4: Coca Cola!” YouTube, Sept. 7, 2015. https://youtu.be/8vNym8ZPeAo.
- Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal (Washington, D.C.) 40, no. 4 (1988): 519–31. https://doi.org/10.2307/3207893.
- Khan, E.J. “The Universal Drink.” New Yorker, Feb. 6, 1959. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1959/02/14/the-universal-drink.