Who’s the Bigger Threat to Russia: NATO or Coke?

The blue-white-and-red homeland has been invaded. But the patriots fight back with resolve and smarts. They will not be subdued.

The scenario is not that of the hoary American Cold War nightmare recently revived, but of Mother Russia, tricolor banners waving, currently being invaded by a red menace far bigger than communism ever was. I refer, of course, to Coca-Cola, sponsor of this year’s World Cup.

Nothing less than conquest of the Russian market is the goal.

Since the days of Sputnik, Big Red has been playing catch-up with the red-white-and-blue:  Pepsi.  Coke’s main competitor established a beachhead in the Soviet Union some sixty years ago after then vice-president Richard Nixon and Premier Nikita Khrushchev shared a Pepsi after their famous Kitchen Debate conducted live in front of television cameras in Moscow in 1959. Soon the Soviet government was bottling Pepsi cola-for-comrades. Given the long history of commercial relations, Russia now accounts for nearly ten percent of Pepsi’s global sales. It is the biggest food and drink maker in the country.

Pepsi’s red competitor first introduced its beverages to Russia in 1979 in anticipation of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.  The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing U. S. Boycott scuppered that strategy. Ten years later with the end of the Cold War, Coca-Cola finally placed its first vending machine in a Moscow hotel.  By then Pepsi had twenty-six bottling plants in the country.

When Boris Yeltsin came to power, Coke saw its opportunity.  In 1991 red cans sprang up on Moscow’s streets, and in Pushkin Square the first Coca-Cola advertising hoarding was erected—the precursor to the electronic version continually encircling soccer fields at Russia’s World Cup. For his part, Gorbachev remained true to the red-white-and-blue, as he showed in the heart-warming ads he went on to do for PepsiCo’s Pizza Hut in which lofty ideas of political and economic freedom were debated over a steaming pie loaded with all the fixings.

But Coke was advancing on Pepsi, as surely as NATO was encroaching on the former soviet bloc. By 2013 more than a billion liters of Coke were consumed in Russia, though this still accounted for less than 2% of the company’s global receipts.

That advance has not been without setbacks. The annexation of (pro-Russian referendum in) the Crimea in early 2014 was followed quickly by Western sanctions. At a Moscow press conference later that year Putin hit back with weaponized words aimed at America’s core values: “many experts say Coca-Cola is harmful for children.”He did not mention Pepsi. 2014 was a year of retreat for Coke. Its Russia profits fell markedly.

But the opportunity for another massive outpouring of world harmony (and of Coke, too) was quickly approaching in the form of the World Cup, and no central Asian adventures—at least not ones launched by the Russians—threatened to turn off the spigot. Things had changed since the days of the 1980 Olympics. Yes, the Americans had long replaced the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the Russians were interfering in US elections rather than the other way around. Whereas Russian machinations had supposedly landed this country with the teetotaling Trump (good for at least a dozen cans of Diet Coke a day) in 2016, American manipulations had helped vodka-swilling, coke-chummy Boris Yeltsin stay in power after the 1996 Russian elections, even though he began the campaign in fifth place and with less than 10% of the electorate supporting him.

Indeed, Big Red has remained undaunted by the kerfuffle in the Crimea and the Russian-hacking-tempest-in-an-eight-ounce-commemorative-FIFA-18-bottle.

Having launched its advertising campaign well in advance of the opening of World Cup play two weeks ago, the beverage behemoth already registered a 5% uptick in its Russian receipts for 2017 and has continued to cash in through the first half of this year.

Victory is far from assured. The masterminds at the corporate war rooms in Atlanta certainly know that the battle for the hearts and minds and tongues of the Russian people is not gained at the concessions stand but through propaganda. The quickest way to the soul is not through the mouth and belly, but through the ears. The gustatory qualities of Coke are hardly winning ones.  On the pitch of propaganda is where outcomes are decided.

Enter the doomsday weapon—the Coca-Cola World Cup Promotional Anthem, “Colors.”

Coke has been pushing their product in affiliation with the World Cup since the 1970s, but only since 2010 have they produced an “anthem” to be bundled with the event’s other musical merchandising, including (but not limited to) an Official Anthem and an Official Song. (Note: the adjective “official” has, both in the world at large and in the short space of this column, lost all meaning.) There is no discernible difference in style between the pieces of music issued under these various labels: the “anthems” are pop songs a long way from the bombastic nineteenth-century strains one normally associates with the term.

For the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, Coke turned to the Somali-Canadian singer K’Naan to deliver a message especially dear to Americans: “Wavin’ Flag.”

As required, K’naan offered up blandishments to freedom and gestured benignly towards poverty in the global south, but the video’s melodic strains and pseudo-moral sentiments were reheated from the classic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)”, a song that began as the jingle, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”

For Brazil in 2014 Coke’s with “The World is Ours” barely concealed its designs for world domination behind the familiar packaging of global unity.

Just as clearly as Coke is murky, “Colors” manifests the mighty corporation’s mission to make Russia red again. The “anthem” is boldly, baldly transnational: headlining American Jason Derulo is joined by Colombian heartthrob Murama and Pakistani songstress, Qurat-ul-Ain Balouch. Given the trilingual line-up, Coke issued English, Spanish, and Urdu versions. The official (that word again!) video, currently flirting with a paltry forty million YouTube hits, begins with Derulo ensconced in the black leather interior of his SUV. With his iPhone he skypes one of his buddies, who tells him, “We’re about to slide over to the other side of town to play some football.”  The football is not of the North American type but— surprise, surprise—what non-world-cupping Derulo would normally call soccer.

Reference to a previous Coke anthem—that flag wavin’ business—spurs vivid dance numbers on the urban soccer field and shots of real world-class players at their art. The lyric—presented in an overproduced, de-natured recipe that is the aural equivalent of Coke Zero—summons change, but the message is the same old one:

Ready the people
A new day has just begun
And I wear my colors on my back (celebrate, celebrate)
We’re created equal
One race, and that’s human
Can’t wait ’til they all see, that

Saying “Oh, can’t you taste the feeling, feeling”
Saying “Oh, we all together singing”

The elixir of freedom is Coke. Even among the full spectrum of nationalistic symbols staged in the video, the dominant color in “Colors” is red.

These weeks it is to be seen everywhere across the land. Over centuries, successive invaders Napoleon and Hitler learned the hard way that Russia retreats and draws the enemy in, then crushes them. Learning a lesson from the host country, counterattacking Mexico did exactly this to the latest incarnation of the Teutonic Knights in the soccer tournament’s opening round, with Mexican star Chucky Lozano playing the part of Alexander Nevsky, not on the frozen ice of Lake Peipus, but on the summer grass of the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

How does sometime Coke-critique, and brilliant geopolitical strategist Putin respond to the present invasion? Again, we must look to the colors.

Two weeks ago at the opening ceremonies that were mercifully shorter than the usual silly epics, Robbie Williams sailed through a brisk set in which he conspicuously avoided his hit “Party Like a Russian,” though he did give the world the middle finger during his short show, claiming later that he meant to signal one-minute to kick-off.

After Williams fled the pitch, the two teams playing in the tournament’s first match entered the stadium: Russia and Saudi Arabia.  The host side may have been clad in bright red, but its members arrayed themselves in formation alongside a giant teardrop-shaped banner of the Russian colors held taught and horizontal above the grass by dozens of their country folk. (The image can seen at minute 25:00 of this clandestine video, flagrantly still available at YouTube in violation of FIFA’s copyright stranglehold of the world’s game.)

The Russian flag looked, literally for all the world, like the Pepsi logo. Up in his box, Putin smiled as the heroic strains of the national hymn resounded through the Luzhniki Stadium—not a pop tune masquerading as an ode to global harmony, but a hymn to his homeland:

Russia — our sacred State,
Russia — our beloved country.
A mighty will, a great glory —
Is your legacy for all time!

After the World Cup has pulled out of the country, expect Putin to show Coke the red card in unflagging defense of the red-white-and-blue.


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


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