Lots of people know about how Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine or how Pepsi was the hip drink in the 1960s. Few realize that Coke marketed assiduously to whites, while Pepsi hired a "negro markets" department. Put more bluntly, Coke was made for white people. Pepsi was made for black people. Over the course of the decades and the seemingly limitless growth of the soft drink industry, the companies have expanded their marketing departments and launched myriad campaigns to discourage the idea that either appealed to a specific race. And now, in 2012 as Mayor Bloomberg plays tough against continued opposition to his ban on soft drinks, the complicated racial dynamics of the industry are exposed once again, as the NAACP works to reverse the ban, thanks, in part, to donations from Coca-Cola.
The fascinating century-and-a-half-long history of soft drinks and race relations in the United States is spelled out in a just published New York Times column from Grace Elizabeth Hale. The part about the interwar period in America is particularly interesting. Coke marketed mainly to the white middle class:
Coke's recipe wasn't the only thing influenced by white supremacy: through the 1920s and ’30s, it studiously ignored the African-American market. Promotional material appeared in segregated locations that served both races, but rarely in those that catered to African-Americans alone.
Whereas Pepsi and its "negro markets" department went an entirely different direction:
By the late 1940s, black sales representatives worked the Southern Black Belt and Northern black urban areas, black fashion models appeared in Pepsi ads in black publications, and special point-of-purchase displays appeared in stores patronized by African-Americans. The company hired Duke Ellington as a spokesman. Some employees even circulated racist public statements by Robert W. Woodruff, Coke's president.
So basically Coke and Pepsi used to be totally racist? As Hale, a history professor at the University of Virginia, goes on to explain, the companies abandoned their respective strategies and worked hard to shed "the image of Coke and Pepsi as 'white' and 'black' drinks." The race problems don't stop there but rather become more complicated and not entirely relevant to the companies' marketing practices. For brevity's sake, we won't even get into later issues that surfaced, including exploitation of developing countries' resources and a massive racial discrimination case against Coke that led to a $156 million settlement in 2000, though you should fee free to click through if you're interested.