Coca Cola Superbowl Ad stirs cries of racism

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Coke ad stirs controversy, but this article takes the argument from the sublime to the rediculous
Coke ad stirs controversy, but this article takes it from sublime to ridiculous (click to read article)

Having heard of the controversy over the Super Bowl ad by Coca Cola the past few days, this morning I was captured by the above article.  I expected it to be along a similar vein of remarks showing how Coke was insensitive to Arabs and painting them in a bad light.  When I first heard this argument on the TV news, I was looking for the Association of Los Vegas Showgirls to show up any minute and complain, followed by the African American Cowboy Association, National Hispanic Cowboys,  etc…
What stopped me in my tracks was not the casual assertion of racism due to insensitive stereotyping in the pursuit of parody that I was expecting, but the allegation that Coke, like many other soft drink companies, has a long and purposely racist history.  The author of this article draws some quotes from an article in the New York Times by Grace Elizabeth Hale.  I did not read the original article, and her segment may have been taken out of context, but the facts as laid out in this article are a modernist revision of the real and quite fascinating history.  Perhaps, I would not know this if it weren’t for the extensive research I did for the patent medicine section of my last book, The History and Evolution of HealthCare in America: The untold backstory of where we’ve been, where we are, and why healthcare needs more reform.

America’s Long History of Addiction

America has had a long history with narcotics and addiction. The above article does get it correct that Coca Cola started out like many other patent medicines with a mixture of alcohol and a narcotic, in this case cocaine.  The article would lead you to believe that John Pemberton (a pharmacist), concocted his original drink purely as a commercial venture with the intent to make people addicted for profit.  This was not in fact the case.  Mr. Pemberton (not a pharmacist), like so many wounded Civil War veterans in 1865 left his service to the south severely addicted to morphine.  Back then the basic treatment for that addiction was to switch to Vin Mariani – a tonic wine, basically a Bordeaux infused with coca leaves. The theory was that the cocaine in the wine simply replaced the addiction to the morphine and later, again supposedly, the person could wean themselves to just wine.

Birth of an Enduring Brand

Vin Mariani was quite bitter and very distasteful to Pemberton.  In a quest to find something more drinkable he began to develop his own cocktail, using red wine and coca leaves with some other spices.  He settled on wine, refined cocaine, and the leaves of the damiana plant.  He called his concoction, Pemberton’s Red Wine Coca.  It became a very rapid success in Fulton County, Georgia where he lived.  The local pharmacy (Jacob’s Pharmacy) sold over 25 gallons the first year and over 1,000 gallons the next.
Fortunately for Mr. Pemberton, America was addicted to patent medicines.  Everyone in the late 1800s up through the 1920s relied on Patent Medicines to cure just about anything and everything.  In realty they cured nothing, but since their active ingredients were either cocaine and alcohol, or morphine and alcohol, or in many cases mixtures of all three, no one really cared.  They did not have the expectations of cures as we do today.  In that period a cure was seen more as the elimination of suffering from the disease or cause, not the elimination of the disease or cause itself.

Ripe Market for Addictive Substances

By 1870’s America was addicted.  In fact the rate of addiction of these three substances by 1900 was almost twice that of the worst periods of addiction in the 1960s or 1970s(at the peak about 18% of the population in 1960s – 1970s were addicted to cocaine, alcohol or other narcotic).  The main difference is people did not know what they were taking in the 1850s-1920s.  This background helps lead to the extraction of the key quote, and significant leap alleging a history of racism by Coca Cola asserted in the article, and also why it’s not true.
By 1900 a huge part of the population was addicted, and between men and women, significantly more women were addicted than men.  The main culprit of women’s addiction was cocaine.  Even the venerable Sears & Roebuck catalogue offered relief for women from their “monthlies” with a cocaine kit including a dose of cocaine and a small needle for $1.29.  There were numerous powders, cocktails, cordials, pills and other concoctions targeting the “high strung” female and the prime ingredient was cocaine in one form or another.

Tides Turn

The good news is by 1880s, some women were waking up, many stimulated by the suffrage movement, and religious leaders were now advocating against the evils of drink, and drugs. The biggest problem was the power of the patent medicine men.  They were united through the Proprietary Manufacturers Association and were one of the largest, if not the largest, and most powerful associations of their day. In 1891, the members of the Proprietary Association owned or controlled over 80% of the newspapers and publications in America.  They also were one of the early groups who had their representatives standing in the lobby of the Willard Hotel (where the term lobbyist comes from) in Washington to influence congress to keep the world exactly where they wanted it–addicted.
As the women woke up, and suffrage took hold, their attacks against the evils of alcohol took root in cities, and the Temperance movement expanded and got results.  Many cities and towns began to pass laws banning alcohol.  So was the fate in Fulton County, and in the City of Atlanta Ga., where Mr. Pemberton was located.  Like many other patent medicines, he was forced to eliminate most of the alcohol from his product in order to continue to sell it.  New technology was invented to solve this problem, called carbonic acid machines.  We call them soda fountains.  One of the reasons for alcohol in these medicines was to keep either the morphine, or cocaine in solution.  The patent medicine men found out they could use the acidified water in conjunction with an undetectable, in that period, amount of alcohol to do the same thing.

Coca Cola the Product is Born

In 1886, John Pemberton, reformulated his concoction using the new carbonic acid, soda water, and his accountant suggested they needed a new name to avoid the damnation of alcohol.  So Pemberton’s Red Wine Coca, became Coca Cola!  Asa Chandler did buy Coca Cola from Pemberton a year later in 1887 for $2,300.00. And, it was Chandler who moved Coca Cola from a small regionally distributed syrup, dispensed through pharmacy carbolic acid machines, into the bottled drink (1894) that became one of the first nationally distributed “soft” drinks and led many other patent medicine men from patent medicines into the soda market we have today like; Dr. Pepper, Heir’s Root Beer, “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda”(Now 7-UP), and Jamaican Ginger Beer (Now Ginger Ale), among others.

“The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry!”

Where the article goes most awry, is in an attribution of a quote from southern newspapers that “…’negro cocaine fiends’ were raping white women, the police unable to stop them…”  The quote is accurate but the history behind it is not.  I suspect the historian herself may not even be aware of how, and why, this attribution started in the first place. The facts behind this disgusting statement are one of the more diabolical and disconcerting marketing cases from our past.

Tribunal of Conspiracy

By 1900, the pressure was mounting against the patent medicine men.  The Proprietary Association had been in an uncomfortable partnership with the National Association of Retail Druggists and Distributors (Now part of the American Pharmaceutical Association APhA), and the American Medical Association (AMA).  But due to the pressures on the hidden and often deadly issues of the elixirs they were peddling, the powerful AMA began to waver in its support  of the patent medicines and started to publish negative reviews of many of the so called cures. Interestingly though, for a while they published the negative reviews only against those Proprietary Association men who did not advertise in the Journal of the AMA (JAMA). Later, Colliers Weekly ran a series of articles by Samuel Hopkins Adams, that exposed the collusion and conspiracies of the Proprietary Association and the evidence of the ingredients that in his words were, “the shameful trade that  stupefies helpless babies and makes criminals of our voting men and harlots of  our young women.” This rising tide, first against alcohol, and later against the hidden drugs was taking hold.  The Proprietary Association needed to move the cause of the issues from their cure-all elixirs to another convenient source.
The patent medicine industry’s Proprietary Association fought back against these and other attacks by the AMA and by Collier’s Weekly by creating what is now a common defense; casting aspersions on the victims of its concoctions. If medicines were being abused, it wasn’t the manufacturer’s fault. The fault lay with the abuser.

The Source of the Myth

The Proprietary Association, retained a writer at one of their controlled publications, named Joel Blank to write an article, disgustingly titled, “The Niggers in the Wood  Pile.” Published in a 1905 edition of the Practical Druggist periodical, Mr.. Blanc, made a mighty attempt to play down the whole problem of the rising tide of concern about addiction and the problems with patent medicines. The root of the problem was the “fiends who are abusing these harmless medications.” The title of the article was more than a curious usage of a pejorative of the day. It was a part of an orchestrated campaign by the Proprietary Association to lay the problem caused by the “fiends” directly at the feet of freed slaves. Blanc never made direct reference to race in his article, but he used certain code words that laid the source of the problem at the feet of the lower classes and the disenfranchised. The Proprietary Association technique, of targeting minorities as the cause of any related issues, had a long history in the patent medicine trade. During this period, the blame not directed to simply the poor classes, it was now seen repeatedly in newspaper articles, often in the south, where it began to attribute the concern to rising violence and rape of “white” women by addicted Negroes” or in the West as an expected outcome due to the unscrupulous nature of  China-men.” While society rejects this type of invective today, race-based execration was all too common in this country’s sad history during this period, which directly contributed to the distrust and disaffection among the races for many years.

Why the idea that is was “Negros” and “Chinamen”? And why raping women?

The link was cocaine.  Women were the prime user of cocaine, and it was becoming evident that cocaine addiction among women, more than others, was leading to serious consequences and death among the population. Newly freed in the south, the climate was rife for justification to paint freed slaves in a poor light.  The Chinese, who were seen as the source of the problem with opium, and opiates like morphine, also were a minority rife for exploitation.  The Patent Medicine men may not have been able to control Colliers, but by god they had the newspapers in the south and in the west.  Mr. Blank’s article was at first reproduced and then attributed for local expansion and embellishment, and finally just a footnote in the history of this calculated campaign.  The current form of main stream news outlets citing unknown or dubious sources to further political agendas is neither new or practiced as efficiently as it was in those days.
By the time this attack had commenced, Coca Cola no longer had cocaine in its formulation, having removed it in 1903, replacing it with increased amounts of caffeine.  Coca Cola’s Asa Chandler had been a strong member of the Proprietary Association but by the time of the article by Mr. Blank he had already made the strategic decision to move from the patent medicine game into the soft drink world.  It is clear from this history that Coca Cola was at least not an active purveyor of the “negro cocaine fiend” argument and likely not involved in it at all. African Americans then, as now, were an important customer base of Coke and attacking them would have done little to help Coke’s sales.  Asa Chandler was first and foremost a salesman and marketer, it was his key read of the trends in the market that led him to drop the cocaine in the formulation, 5 years before the Pure Food and Drug Act forced disclosure of the ingredients.  As a quick note, It was not the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1909 that forced the removal of narcotics from these formulations. It would take till 1935 for that to become law. All the act did was require that certain compounds, designated by the government, were to be listed on the bottle or its box; along with a skull & crossbones also affixed if some specific ingredients in the list were present.  It was in actuality the sea change in attitude of America’s women, stimulated from the Collier’s articles by Samuel H. Adams, that forced the final change and sounded the death knell for the patent medicine era.

The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

While patent medicines may have died, the companies and the products did not.  Many still remain in the market and you can find them in your icebox and on the shelves in supermarkets and drugstores.  Ponds Cold Cream, Listerine, the sodas mentioned earlier, Catsup or Ketchup however you want to spell it, Halls Cough Drops, Horehound Drops Candy, Alka Seltzer, Vick’s Vap O Rub, and many, many, others started their lives in the mid 1800s as cures for almost everything.
Oddly enough, the old patent medicines and the industry and business they started are still with us today.  Many of yesterday’s patent medicine companies are todays pharmaceutical companies.  Miles Laboratories, Squibb, Pfizer, and others began their life in that era either as a purveyor of patent medicines or the provider of the raw ingredients.

No Modern Racial Component

The racial component, of the patent medicine men’s battle to maintain control over the sales of their elixirs, and their attempt to use minorities and victims of their addictive substances as the cause of the problem will forever be a stain on us as human beings. But I do not think it is either necessary, nor a good practice, to attribute racial intentions where none exist.
I hope you enjoyed the history lesson.  Feel free to comment.

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