Welcome to the Coca-Cola Games Coke: The world's largest soft-drink bottler is dominating the Olympics, from a two-story Coca-Cola bottle to the hawking of souvenirs such as a recipe book touting the virtues of "Cooking With Coca-Cola."

Sun Journal

July 19, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Six hours, six souvenir T-shirts and about $200 after entering Coca-Cola Olympic City, Cindy Johnson sits on a bench and reads a "Cooking With Coca-Cola" recipe book as Coca-Cola singers and dancers perform what amounts to a live Coca-Cola jingle on a nearby stage dominated by a gigantic bottle of Coca-Cola.

"You think this is commercial?" says Johnson of Ackworth, Ga.

"When you live here, you see Coca-Cola all over. It's a continual sales pitch. To be honest, I wouldn't expect anything less of Coke."

The Centennial Summer Olympics could be subtitled the "Coca-Cola Games." The world's biggest sporting event is setting up shop in the back yard of the world's largest beverage company.

Coke billboards and banners are strewn across the city. The Coke symbol shines on the floors and ceilings of Atlanta's subway stations. Coke operates two Olympic pin-trading centers.

And there is the 12-acre Olympic City theme park, dominated by a two-story Coke bottle, around which fans can soak up a multimedia Olympic experience, while stocking up on Coke merchandise ranging from commemorative gold bottles to Christmas decorations.

"What do we all have in common?" a preposterously upbeat master of ceremonies asks at a Coca-Cola show. "We all get thirsty."

In Atlanta, Coca-Cola isn't just bubbles and syrup -- it's a company that has helped shape the city's history and provided it with a place on a world stage. The drink that was created May 8, 1886, by a druggist named John Styth Pemberton remains the heart of an $18 billion-a-year giant.

The company's Olympic ties go back to 1928. Yet to hear Coca-Cola executives tell the story, they didn't even take sides when Atlanta tried to secure the 1996 games, since 70 percent of the company's sales are outside the United States.

But it was obvious from the beginning that Coke would become an Olympic player in Atlanta. When Billy Payne, head of the local Olympic organizing committee, first met with Juan Antonio Samaranch, International Olympic Committee president, he presented him with a set of mint julep tumblers.

Samaranch looked at the gift and said: "Can you drink Coca-Cola out of it?"

With the games in Atlanta, Coca-Cola is pulling out all stops, with a worldwide advertising and marketing campaign that costs anywhere from $400 million to $2 billion, according to media estimates.

Although company executives won't provide specifics, the figures that are already public are impressively large: a $40 million sponsorship deal with the International Olympic Committee, $60 million in advertising on NBC-TV, $20 million to "present" the Olympic torch relay.

How many people does Coca-Cola want to reach worldwide during the games?

"Every man, woman and child," says Mark Preisinger, the company's Olympic spokesman.

While it's hard to find anyone with a discouraging word about Coca-Cola around here, the Olympic promotion campaign has been skewered by some critics who see it as yet another sign that the Olympics has sold its soul to corporate sponsors.

"Businesses see the Olympics as kind of a long, drawn-out Super Bowl," says Michael Jacobson, director of the Center of the Study of Commercialism. "They can associate their names with the good image of the Olympics and athletes. A company like Coke, which likes junk, especially likes this -- we call it innocence by association."

When it comes to marketing, Coca-Cola may be without peer. According to Beverage World magazine, "Big Red wants the world to drink Coca-Cola products and it is very serious about it -- this is a company that sees tap water as a competitor."

And for Coke, Atlanta is its domain, base to some 8,000 employees and a corporate headquarters that looms over the city a few miles from the downtown core.

Coca-Cola money pours into the city, funding universities, community development projects and cultural activities.

The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, founded by Coca-Cola's most successful magnate and fueled by millions of shares of company stock held over decades, has been a driving force in the city. The Woodruff and related foundations have shaped and reshaped Atlanta with more than $1 billion in grants since 1934.

"To remove their philanthropic gifts made in Atlanta over those years would have a Swiss cheese effect across the city," wrote Gary Pomerantz of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

Foundation money paid for the Woodruff Arts Center, Woodruff Park, the Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center, and much of Emory University. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's friendship with the Coca-Cola magnate also helped the city gain the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"If Atlanta disappeared from the face of the earth, Coke wouldn't. But if Coke disappeared from the face of the earth, then Atlanta might," says Frederick Allen, author of a Coke history, "Secret Formula."

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