[Paleopsych] TLS: Unquenchable thirst

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Unquenchable thirst

    Harold Perkin
    09 July 2004
    BIRTH OF A SALESMAN. The transformation of selling in America. Walter
    A. Friedman. 334pp. Harvard University Press. $27.95. - 0 674 01298 4.

    A CENTURY OF AMERICAN ICONS. 100 products and slogans from the
    twentieth century consumer culture. Mary Cross, editor. 256pp.
    Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. $49.95. - 0 313 31481 0.

    POP. Truth and power at the Coca-Cola company. Constance Hays. 399pp.
    Hutchinson. £18.99. - 0 09 179968 6.

    David Ricardo believed that production was the engine of the economy
    and, with J.

    B. Say, that half the goods in the market bought the other half, so
    that producers did not have to worry about consumer demand. T. R.
    Malthus, on the other hand, believed that consumption was the
    mainspring and that demand, notably that of the idle rich, called
    forth production. Ever since, most economists have agreed with
    Ricardo, holding that the supply side would evoke sufficient demand to
    clear the market. Strangely enough, however, most big businessmen,
    while kowtowing to Ricardo's free market, have followed Malthus. By
    and large, they have distrusted the market to buy their goods without
    massive efforts to stimulate consumer demand. Hence the importance of
    salesmanship, public relations and advertising.

    The three books under review preach the significance of consumption in
    the rise of the American economy and its spread across the globe. In
    Birth of a Salesman Walter A. Friedman traces the evolution of the
    modern salesman from the peddlers, hawkers and canvassers of
    pre-industrial America. They bought their wares - tin utensils,
    scissors, clocks and watches, lace, sewing materials, even lightning
    conductors - from workshops and wholesalers at their own risk, unlike
    the modern commercial traveller, working for a large corporation and
    controlled by a marketing manager. The first pioneers, some of whom
    were women, included the sellers of devotional literature, bibles and
    prayer books. But for the most part, salesmen have been thoroughly
    masculine, a brotherhood who faced the travails of a peripatetic
    trade, and the comradeship of the saloon and cheap hotel.

    The early salesmen had a reputation for conmanship and chicanery.
    Henry Thoreau in 1854 thought them an unnatural, wasteful force, and
    Herman Melville, in The Confidence Man (1857), saw them as satanic
    sellers of false promises, fake medicines, useless stocks and shares,
    and nonexistent charities. Later in their evolution they were
    epitomized by Arthur Miller's womanizing, self-pitying, worn-out Willy

    Most of the travelling salesmen worked for wholesalers, but soon the
    modern giant corporations and public-relations firms set up their own
    marketing departments and turned them into well-respected heralds of
    free enterprise. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, large
    corporations with national or even worldwide ambitions, like Singer's
    sewing machines, Burroughs's typewriters, Candler's Coca-Cola, Heinz's
    fifty-seven varieties of canned foods, and Patterson's National Cash
    Register, began to treat marketing as a science, after the pattern of
    F. W. Taylor's scientific management. They raised the status of their
    agents, formulated guides to their conduct and approach to the
    shopkeeper or housewife, and backed them up with large-scale
    nationwide advertising.

    Magazines and books sprang up, like Printer's Ink (1888), The Science
    of Successful Salesmanship (1904) and Scientific Sales Management: A
    practical application of the principles of scientific sales management
    to selling (1913).

    They invented "salesology" with its own magazine in the 1910s and 20s.
    By 1920 there were 220 sales-management books in the Library of
    Congress catalogue.

    The salesmen, backed by mass advertising, helped to create the icons
    of American consumerism. The contributors to Mary Cross's symposium, A
    Century of American Icons, have produced 100 micro-histories of the
    logos, trade marks, slogans and jingles which have become part of the
    American psyche, many of them reaching out to most of the countries of
    the world. They include Coca-Cola, Heinz Baked Beans, Campbell's Soup,
    Kellogg's Cornflakes, Kodak cameras, Marlboro Man with his dangling
    cigarette, Cadillac luxury cars, Ronald McDonald, Gillette razors,
    Levi's Jeans, down to Absolut Vodka, Victoria's Secret lingerie, the
    AppleMac "Big Brother" television ad and the Yahoo internet search
    engine. They also cover icons that have swamped America but are rarely
    seen on the other side of the Atlantic: Morton's Salt, Burma-Shave,
    A&P (the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company), Lydia Pinkham's
    Vegetable Compound, Uneeda Biscuit and RCA Radio have failed to

    The collection is a potted history of consumerism in the most
    insatiable consuming nation in the world. It demonstrates not only how
    the demand for mass-produced goods and services has been stimulated,
    but also how mass consumption has created the biggest international
    corporations and largest fortunes for their top executives on the
    planet. What the book does not show is the way in which the
    corporations owning the icons have used their muscle to outcompete and
    marginalize their rivals, by stealthy marketing ploys such as
    exclusive deals with supermarkets and fast-food outlets, and mergers
    with or purchases of smaller competitors. This aspect of corporate
    business is best illustrated by the icon which dominates the cover of
    the collection, Coca Cola.

    Constance Hays's story of how Coca-Cola - "a beverage with no
    nutritional value sold variously as a remedy, a tonic and a
    refreshment" - reflects the history of American consumer society and
    the rise of the global economy. It begins with a veteran Civil War
    ex-cavalryman, John Pemberton, who began to sell home-brewed medicines
    and mixtures in Atlanta in 1869. He invented a "French Wine Cola" made
    from a secret syrup containing alcohol, the mildly narcotic coca leaf
    and cola nut - hence the name - which, when diluted with carbonated
    water, the locals took to as a refreshment in the yet to be
    air-conditioned South. Eventually he left out the alcohol and from
    1886 developed the first Coca-Cola. He sold it direct to the customers
    of his growing chain of drugstores and then others from what he called
    a soda fountain. In 1888, he sold the recipe and rights of manufacture
    to a brilliant entrepreneur, Asa Candler, whose genius for selling it
    through soda fountains created a nation of Coca-Cola drinkers and made
    the logo, sketched in his own cursive handwriting, a household name.

    By 1899, he was selling over 200,000 gallons of syrup, each gallon
    making with added soda water nearly 400 Colas, and slaking the thirst
    of Americans over 80 million times a year. At this point, he had not
    thought of making the drink available outside his own and other
    retailers' soda fountains, where it was sold as in ice-cream parlours.
    No one had thought of bottling it, until a couple of entrepreneurs,
    Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead, approached and pestered him to
    give them a contract.

    Candler, who thought that bottling would be too expensive but welcomed
    a further outlet for his syrup, then made the biggest mistake of his
    career. He signed an unlimited contract to supply Thomas and Whitehead
    with the syrup at a fixed price, to be raised only with the price of
    sugar, the main ingredient. Very soon the Coca-Cola bottle, moulded
    like the hourglass-shaped lady of the period, took off and carried the
    logo to the ends of the earth. It also gave a name to all carbonated
    beverages: "Pop", giving the title of Hays's book, came from the
    characteristic noise when the wired ceramic cap was released.

    It took the Coca-Cola company many years, and a bit of chicanery by
    substituting corn syrup or artificial sweeteners (in Diet Coke) for
    sugar, to get control of the distribution system again. That involved
    setting up its own bottling subsidiary and buying out as many of the
    local bottlers as could be persuaded or bullied to sell. This policy
    exposed what happened when a powerful, by now international
    corporation, operating in over 200 countries, set out to compete in
    the free market. Coca-Cola consciously tried to outcompete its rivals,
    Pepsi Cola, Royal Crown, Dr Pepper, and so on, and to drive them into
    a shrinking share of the market. The unstated end of competition is
    monopoly. Coca-Cola used every device it could muster to marginalize
    its competitors - exclusive deals with supermarkets, fast-food chains,
    college campuses, hotels and the like - or to persuade stores to give
    the most prominent shelf space to their products. It was backed by
    massive advertising in all forms of media, costing millions of
    dollars, beyond the reach of all but the richest of rivals.

    The company, it argued, did not sell the actual drink - that was the
    role of the bottlers, including their own Coca-Cola Enterprises - but
    only the syrup. That meant it could control the price at both ends,
    the sum charged to the bottlers and, through the advertised price, to
    the customer. The price squeeze with its guaranteed profits led not
    only to conflict and lawsuits with the bottlers but eventually to
    greater conflict with the government over misleading tax reporting.

    The issue was the relation between the Coca-Cola company and its
    dominant bottling subsidiary. The lawsuit argued that the two
    corporations were interlocked - in 1998 the parent company subsidized
    the bottlers by $1.2 billion in marketing support and other transfers
    - and were essentially the same enterprise, thus misleading the
    shareholders and Federal Treasury.

    Nonetheless, the fizzy drink and its offshoots, 7-Up, Orangina, Fanta
    and Dasani (filtered tap water), had built a vast international
    enterprise which in 1997 employed 29,000 people and was worth billions
    of dollars, its sales more than the GDP of most countries in the
    world. It had also made vast fortunes for a series of brilliant
    executives: Asa Candler, Robert Woodruff, Donald Keough, Roberto
    Goizueta, Douglas Ivester, Doug Daft and Warren Buffet. Goizueta, the
    "little Cuban exile" who climbed the heights of corporate wealth and
    power by his financial genius - though he was also responsible for the
    fiasco of the unpopular "New Coke" which nearly ruined the brand in
    1985 - left over $1 billion when he died in 1997.

    Since his death, Coca-Cola has suffered a slump in its sales and share
    price, but it will be a long time dying, if it ever does. His chosen
    jingle, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke . . .", still rings around
    the world as the greatest icon of American capitalism. Constance
    Hays's Pop is a paradigm of the rise and rise of American global
    dominion. Together, these three books demonstrate how American tastes
    and culture have come to dominate the world.

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