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Arts & Commerce: Debra Goldman's Consumer Republic

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Coke In Europe˜when A Brand Means Too Much
It's Now Official.
Last week, the European Union, which investigated the tainted Cokes in Europe, issued its report. More than two months after 32 teenagers checked into a hospital and blamed funny-smelling Coca-Cola products for their ills, we now have the official ruling: No one knows why hundreds in Belgium and France fell sick after imbibing the official soft drink of the American Way.
What we do know is that before it was over, Coke had been taken off the shelves in Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, a bottling plant in France was shut down and Coke was out $107 million. Beyond that, it's all pretty hazy.
The EU says Coke destroyed evidence. Coke denies it, claiming full cooperation with the authorities. The EU blames the French and Belgian ministries of health for confusion and indecisiveness, the ministries of health blame Coca-Cola Enterprises for bad or incomplete information and Coke grudgingly blames itself--though it's not clear to anyone what for. A bad batch of carbon dioxide? Contamination by a fungicide? An insecticide? Rat poison? None of these potential contaminants, says the EU report, showed up in large enough amounts to cause the health problems.
This conclusion, or lack thereof, strengthens the suspicions of observers in the U.S. that the symptoms suffered by our European consumer-cousins were partly in their heads, not their digestive tracks. The EU, understandably loath to label its citizens hysterical, completely rejects this explanation.
Still, Coke claims that a study by the Belgian government showed that 47 percent of the complaining schoolchildren didn't even drink its stuff before falling ill. It has to rankle every true Coca-Cola patriot to see this noble emblem of free enterprise victimized by a bunch of suggestible consumers suffering from figments of the imagination.
But then, nearly everything about Coke is a figment of the imagination--and most of the time that suits the bosses in Atlanta just fine. The vast symbolic weight attached to this mixture of sweetener and carbonated water is why Coke occupies the holiest of holies in the pantheon of branding. What force besides the imagination could elevate a soft drink to talisman of freedom and democracy? Or, conversely, get it into so much trouble?
In an era when brands are touted as sources of social meaning, Coke's long, hot European summer shows the danger of a brand meaning too much. The company's problems abroad aren't just about business; they're about politics.
In nations whose citizens are ambivalent about the Americanization of the global economy, Brand America in a bottle is a convenient outlet for mixed feelings. One day, a Coke bottle is hoisted in triumph as the Berlin Wall crumbles; the next, it's being poured into the gutters of Dunkirk, where the offending French plant is located. In the volatile, subjective world of consumers, it's a short trip from "God bless America" to "Yankee, go home."
These political woes don't stop with the tainted Coke crisis. On July 20, EU officials, responding in part to complaints filed by Pepsi, Virgin Cola and others, raided Coke offices in four countries looking for evidence of illegal anti-competitive behavior.
On Aug. 12, the Italian government concluded its own 14-month investigation by accusing Coke of trying to drive competitors off the shelves. If found guilty when the final report is issued in December, Coke could be fined $80 million.
These issues have no direct relation to bad bubbles in Belgium. Yet it seems like half the bureaucrats in Europe have taken aim at the company, giving new meaning to the term "cola wars." Safe to say, none fear losing their jobs for taking a stand against Coke.
But don't feel sorry for Coke. Through acquisitions, it continues to expand in Europe. Yet its dilemma makes one think twice about one of the favorite predictions among futurists, courtesy of Karl Marx: "the withering away of the state."
In this scenario, borders, national identity and national controls over commerce will pale in significance next to the suprapolitical, transnational economic and symbolic power of private corporations. Instead of being French or Belgian or American, we'll identify ourselves as global citizens of Levi's Nation or united members of the worldwide Gucci elite.
Yet judging from the ferocity of the food fights now being waged between nations over everything from beef to bananas to Coca-Cola, the state's imminent disappearance may be postponed.
The politics of state are not receding in favor of the power of brands. The power of brands is now a pawn in state politics. The trouble is, while businesses are well-equipped to find business solutions to business problems, there are no business solutions to political problems.
Maybe it's not such a great idea for brands to rule the world after all.