The second part of this assignment focused on the social life of a can of Coca Cola. You can find part one here.
These questions were taken from Igor Kopytoff’s The Cultural Biography of Things (1986). They were selected as these are the questions Kopytoff supposes might be asked of a commodity’s social history.
Where did it come from and who made it?
The drink coca cola was invented in 1886 by Dr. John Pemberton of Atlanta, Georgia, where it was first sold at the nearby Jacob’s Pharmacy. It became regularly for sale in the UK by the 1920s. As for production, Coca Cola is one of the world’s most international companies, operating on a global supply chain. According to their website, Coca Cola has six manufacturing plants in the UK. It seems likely that the can I bought in ULU, Central London, was either produced in Edmonton or Sidcup. Coca Cola is notoriously secret about their recipe, so it can be difficult to track where their ingredients came from, however, the drink contains extracts from the Coca leaf, which is traditionally grown in the High Andes. The original recipe called for adding cocaine, although though now that part of the leaf is removed in manufacturing.
What has been its career so far, and what do people believe to be an ideal career for such things?
So far, this can of Coke has had the ingredients grown and picked (most likely in the High Andes), with high fructose corn syrup added, and the aluminum for the can has been mined. Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, so it could have come from a variety of sources. The can was manufactured in the UK, this particular can most likely in Sidcup or Edmonton. After that, it was shipped to Student Central. This is almost the end of the objects career. After I buy it (with my student card it was discounted from 80p to 72p), I pop the tab and spend perhaps ten minutes sipping at it whilst chatting to a friend before disposing of the can in the recycling bin. This represents the ideal life cycle of a can of Coke; they are designed for single use, and then disposability, pushed instantly from the mind.
How does it’s use change with age?
When Kopytoff asked these questions, you get the sense that he was referring to the age of object, but that is not how coke functions. As described above, a can of Coke is designed for one time use: you buy it cheaply, enjoy it briefly, then throw it away. Instead, the use of Coca Cola changes somewhat with age. As a young child, perhaps it is something of a treat, perhaps you only get it at birthday parties. As you get a little bit older, you drink it more often, perhaps you buy it yourself after school, or your parents buy it for you at a restaurant. Then, when you are older still, it still possesses these qualities, but you might also use it as a mixer in alcohol. “Rum and Coke” or “Jack and Coke” being perhaps the two most common drinks parties full of nervous adolescents drinking for the first time. Thus in terms of the use of Coke, it is not the age of the product (the shelf-life of which is up to nine months, according to eatbydate.com)
This small cluster of images is representative of the life of a can of Coke, beginning in the bottom left corner and travelling clockwise as cocoa leaves in the High Andes, going to a manufacturing plant (perhaps Sidcup!) and ending up on a shelf in Student central where I bout it, drank it, and through it away. I tried to emphasize posing in the pictures of myself to reflect the nature of Coke’s advertising, in which people are always very happy to be drinking their Coke (although they look a lot cooler in the adverts than I do!) The final image is of an aluminium recycling plant. Possibly for my can it will end up in the Alupro plant in Redditch) I left the bottom corner empty, as aluminum can be recycled into a variety of objects, far more than the plastic bottles of Coke, which can only be recycled into poorer quality plastic.
Single consumer artefact: Can of Coca Cola.
In this section of Consumption I will answer questions directly, firstly using questions presented in the course handbook, and then in the collage, answers questions from Igor Kopytoff’s (1986) essay The Cultural Biography of Things which Kopytoff says might be asked of a commodity. The commodity I am examining is a can of Coca Cola. Kopytoff (ibid) says that a commodity is simply anything with a use value and an exchange value, but Slavoj Žižek (2012) points out that commodities also possess an ethereal quality which promises more than they are. In this, Žižek uses the example of a Coke, looking at Coca Cola’s advertising slogan “The real thing.” And questioning what the “real thing” is, noting that it is no physical or chemical quality of the coke which could be determined in a lab. Thus part of the analysis in this section is trying to pinpoint the “real thing” which Coke claims to possess.
What does it make you feel when you buy it?
It depends slightly on the circumstance. I will never buy a plastic bottle because the plastic cannot be truly recycled, but only downcycled, that is, remade into poorer quality plastic. However, I sometimes I buy a can, or order a glass at a restaurant. I think I order Coke at a restaurant because a restaurant is a social occasion, and therefore a cause for celebration. On occasions where I do not wish to consume alcohol (or indeed, when I was too young to be consuming alcohol in a restaurant) the ordering of a Coke is a way of adding a certain significance to the social occasion. This said, it is certainly not the case that every-time a Coke is drunk, it is connoting a significant occasion, but objects can take on different biographies in different contexts (Kopytoff, 1986). In the context of the restaurant, it is celebration.
What emotions do you associate with the product?
With a Coke, I often feel nostalgic. I remember when my mum would pick me up from school on Fridays and have a can of coke in the car for me, or remember how I feel reading my favourite series of books in which the protagonist could barely go a chapter without drinking a can, or I remember drinking glass bottles of coke with my friends at the end of term (which I describe later in this section). This is of course the point. It is exactly the feeling the Coca Cola Company wishes to evoke, and is indicative of wildly successful marketing.
Are mass produced commodities personal or impersonal?
Mass produced objects are impersonal (after all, every can of Coke is identical) when purchased but become personal through use, the marks and stories associated with them make them ours in as if they develop personal qualities of their owners throughout their social lives, that is if you ignore the social lives that commodities possess. Objects possess culturally constructed and culturally specific meanings (Kopytoff, 1986). This can explain how you rib someone about whether they have an xbox or a playstation. Playstations and Xboxes are almost identical commodities, and serve much the same function. With the socially constructed meanings they possess however, the devices can become a part of your family story.
Sometimes companies try to produce feelings of personalisation before purchase. I previously mentioned that every can of Coke is identical, and this used to be true until the 2010s, when Coca Cola, as part of a marketing campaign called “Share a Coke” unveiled personalised Cokes. Although the content of the can was identical, people would spend lots of time seeking out cans or bottles with their own name on. Thus the can of coke becomes a quasi-social actor as social relations are established with the object itself. These social relations are established with the commodity before said commodity is even bought.
Can shopping for mass produced goods and provisions be seen as a form of love or kinship?
Certainly, there are lots of traditions built around it. When I was in school, for example, on the last day of term, “Coke Day” became a tradition. One of my group of friends would go out and buy a six pack of coca cola, always in glass bottles, never cans or plastic, because it tasted the best out of glass bottles. Then, at lunch time, four or five of us would gather and drink the Coke. Every last day of term (so three times per year) for about three years we did this and it was very much a sign of acceptance and bonding. We usually had one left over, and whoever got it would always say they felt how “honoured” felt.
I am reminded of the case of how KFC became a Christmas tradition in Japan. A KFC executive in the 1970s overheard some foreigners talking about how they missed turkey at Christmas, and he thought that perhaps KFC could be a good substitute. In 1974, this became national policy, it was called Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakki, or Kentucky for Christmas. There were no Christmas traditions in Japan and KFC was able to provide one. This is partly because in Japan, only 1% is Christian, and Christmas isn’t an official holiday, so it isn’t practical to spend all day cooking, just show up with some chicken. One Japanese man said
“It’s kind of a symbol of family reunion,” Ando says. “It’s not about the chicken. It’s about getting the family together, and then there just happens to be chicken as part of it.” Therefore, this is clearly a case in which a consumer product used to reinforce kinship ties.