The Real Thing: Coke and the Library of Congress
Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
A few weeks ago, we received an invitation to attend an event at the Library of Congress.
Coca-Cola was about to make an "historic contribution" to the Library of Congress, and the Library, and Coca-Cola, were inviting reporters to cover the event. We accepted the invitation.
We learned from the morning papers that the "historic contribution" was a complete set of 20,000 television commercials pushing Coca-Cola into the American digestive system.
Remember the one where the kid hands Pittsburgh Steeler Mean Joe Greene his bottle of Coke, and in return, Mean Joe tosses the kid his football jersey? Or what about on a hilltop in Italy where the folks start sing "I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company"?
The event was at the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building--named after the Thomas Jefferson who, in 1816, wrote: "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws our country."
Anyway, we pull up at the appointed hour (7:15 p.m. on November 29, 2000) at the Thomas Jefferson building, and there's a traffic jam created by stretch limousines blocking the entrance.
In addition to lowly reporters, the 400 or so guests included ambassadors, members of Congress, corporate chieftains and other dignitaries. Good thing we dressed up.
The Main Hall is this absolutely stunning room, with marble staircases. A string quartet is playing. Waiters are serving Coke in classic bottles. The food is fabulous--lamb chops, trout, Peking duck. We rub shoulders with the Ambassador from Burma.
The "aristocracy of our monied corporations," as Jefferson put it, had taken over the place, and Coca-Cola wanted to make sure that everybody knew it.
After all, Coke could have just donated the ads to the Library and left it at that. But this wasn't about Coke's largesse. It was about public relations--whether the public would view the company as a racist company (Coke had just agreed to pay $192.5 million to settle allegations that it routinely discriminated against black employees in pay, promotions and performance evaluations) or a junk food pusher (consuming large quantities of sugared Coca-Cola has led to ours being one of the most overweight generations in history)--or instead, a generous contributor to the Library of Congress.
James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, was called on to deliver good things to Coke, and he did. He turned over the keys of the Main Hall to Coke, and Coke decked the place out with its logo, stitched in red beside the logo of the Library of Congress. Television sets were placed throughout the hall, the better for the Ambassadors and members of the Democratic Leadership Council to check out the commercials.
Billington was selling the soul of the library to one of the world's most powerful corporations. In addition to the ads, Coke was establishing a fellowship at the Library for the study of "culture and communication"--one fellow will receive $20,000 a year for the next five years.
Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, was outside the event, protesting. "It is not the proper role of the taxpayer-financed Library of Congress to help promote junk food like Coca-Cola to a nation that is suffering skyrocketing levels of obesity," Ruskin said. "It is crass commercialism for James Billington to degrade Jefferson's library and founding ideals into a huckster's backdrop."
But without shame, Billington introduced Doug Daft, the president of Coca-Cola, who said that "Coca-Cola has become an integral part of people's lives by helping to tell these stories." Nothing about profits. Nothing about overweight kids. Nothing about racism.
After Daft spoke, the room went dark, and the ads ran on the television screens. Nostalgia swept the room. When the ads were finished, the lights went back on and the crowd cheered.
About 80 high school students, dressed in Coca-Cola red sweaters, filled the marble staircases and sang--"I want to buy the world a Coke." Again, the crowd cheered. Doug Daft, standing downstairs, came back to the microphone to continue his statement. We were upstairs at this point, and we looked down at him and asked, in a loud voice--"Why are you using a public library to promote a junk food product?"
The room went quiet. Library of Congress police charged up the marble staircase. Doug Daft put his hand to his ear and shouted back to us: "What did you say?"
In a louder voice, we shouted back: "Why are you using a public institution to promote a junk food product?"
The next thing we know, we are on the ground. The Library of Congress police had tackled us. Again, the crowd cheered--not for our question, but for the tackle.
We were dragged downstairs, past the Ambassador from Burma, and hauled outside, where police officers from the District of Columbia were waiting for us.
Out of the Thomas Jefferson building came running a man from Coke. "This is a private event," the man from Coke told the police. "I'm from Coca-Cola."
At first, the police wanted nothing to do with the man from Coke. But the man from Coke insisted. They huddled.
Apparently, the man from Coke didn't want us arrested for asking an obvious question. Apparently, the man from Coke didn't want a public trial. The man from Coke was standing up for our First Amendment rights to ask his boss a question.
The police said we were to leave the grounds. And we weren't to come back. Ever.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).
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