Urban Enchantment: The Corporate Magic of Coca-Cola?

It all started when we were minding our own business in Kroger, buying a cart full of (vegan) mint-chocolate-chip ice cream like normal people.

As we turned down the chip aisle (because if you’re having ice cream for dinner, you might as well have an appropriate appetizer, right?), we nearly collided with an ad for Coca-Cola proclaiming that we, too, could taste STARLIGHT. And, one of the little cardboard tabs proclaimed, we could EXPERIENCE MAGIC via the taste of space, whereupon we nearly had a meltdown next to some Doritos.

In case you haven’t seen these ads yet, behold:

Obviously, we bought some. And drank it out of crystal goblets.

And yes – it does somehow taste of marshmallows, raspberries, and mint (though it’s more the kind of cool-blast taste associated with mint than the actual flavor of mint.) We think it’s that cool-blast/toothpaste-y feeling it leaves in your mouth that makes it taste “space-like,” as much as anything can actually taste space-like. Which isn’t much, but it was a hilarious exercise nonetheless.

Now, we are the kind of scholars who will un-ironically spend a day at Disney World while wearing mouse-ear crowns – the day after delivering conference papers interrogating sexist, ableist norms imbedded in fairy-tale conventions. Because we believe in both critical thinking and eating pink donuts on carousels.

Hanging our with our gargoyle friend in the Magic Kingdom!

So it should be no surprise that, after drinking our weird space soda and falling down a seriously wild rabbit hole of Coke’s Starlight branding, we decided that the logical thing to do would be to go to the World of Coca-Cola the next day.

“What on earth is the World of Coca-Cola?!” you might well be thinking. Let us tell you! It’s a building in Atlanta that’s home to a museum/experience dedicated entirely to The Coca-Cola Company. Yep. There’s a short 3D movie, a mini-bottling plant, an exhibit all about the history of Coke in pop culture, and even a TASTING room. You can get your picture with a polar bear, test your smelling ability, and even buy a Coke-themed USB charger.

So why was this the next logical thing to do? Well, partially because we thought it would be ridiculous and fun, and partially because something about Coke’s language all over their website was tingling our spidey senses: a “taste from a new world,” “a lifestyle innovation,” “discover real magic.”

It couldn’t be clearer. They were making a bid to project a kind of CORPORATE MAGIC that was giving Disney a run for their money. And magic, well, magic is our business.

But what on earth does “corporate magic” even mean? What CAN it mean? Aren’t these two things diametrically opposed?

We mean, just LOOK at these ads for Coke’s Starlight!

Over the last few years, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about marketing and branding language. It’s kind of unavoidable when you have a small business, PhDs, and absolutely no background in marketing, so you have to start from scratch. And we’ve noticed how often corporations use language that evokes fairy tales and folklore to sell their product, even when that product has nothing to do with fairy tales and folklore at all! It’s fascinating and bizarre (and often quite effective), which is probably part of why corporate storytelling has become such a thing in the last several years.

So, for you, we decided to investigate.

Okay, it was for us too, because we knew it was going to be hilarious. HOW hilarious, though, we had no idea!

So, first of all, the language of magic was EVERYWHERE.

A lot of this had to do with the idea that Coke’s formula is a HUGE SECRET that must not be told (on pain of death. Or maybe just being forced to drink Pepsi.) They were VERY intense about this. The 3D movie was all about a mad professor-type trying to discover the formula (hint: the most important ingredient is YOU) (mostly, we just enjoyed it for the scientist’s pet weasel), and there was a whole exhibit about how the formula was made (it involved apothecaries!)

There was all kinds of alchemy and cauldron language/imagery too.

But while we expected a certain level of “magical” branding, what we DIDN’T expect was all the actual folklore.

It starts right when you walk in. In the front of the museum and scattered throughout are giant FOLK ART Coke bottles – many of them had the artist’s names painted on the bottles.

They were honestly pretty awesome!

But then we came to the MOST folklore-y thing. There’s a whole section of the museum dedicated to “Myths and Legends” about Coke.

We were THRILLED. So thrilled that we’ll forgive the misuse of the word “myth.” Check out Sara’s happy dance in our latest TikTok video :P. The whole thing was full of rumors and legends about the Coca-Cola brand. Was the formula stolen from someone in Spain or India? Was the fizz a total mistake? Did Coke used to be green?

The whole room was accompanied by barely audible whispers of people sharing these stories. It was PEAK invocation of folklore, and we were shocked. We couldn’t stop laughing wildly.

So was this corporate magic successful?

To be clear, the World of Coke is basically a giant commercial designed to make you think that Coke is the best thing that could ever happen to you. And part of why their marketing is so successful is because of how they borrow the ideas and concepts at the heart of folklore.

One of the first things you see when you enter the World of Coke is a “short film” (read: epic commercial) that shows how Coke is a part of the experience of everyday life – it’s about remembering moments shared with your loved ones. Spliced together are scenes are people getting engaged in hot air balloons in Albuquerque, bros trying to shoot a basket off their ridiculously high balcony into a hoop waiting in the water below, a beloved grandmother’s birthday party, climbing mountains, and more. It’s aggressively international and positive (did we mention that the histories of Coke offered throughout the exhibit are VERY edited for the most positive possible spin? Nary a mention of cocaine in early formulas of the drink or of Coca-Cola’s product Fanta’s development in Nazi Germany in the 30s – nope, the materials only refer to its reincarnation in Italy in the 50s. Because it’s not really a museum – it’s a corporate extravaganza.) The company wants you to associate Coke with the fabric of everyday life, with magic, with the local, with the vernacular and the personal.

It’s very effective advertising.

Of course, the advertising is itself not folklore at all, even if it’s borrowing the concepts and language. But some of the exhibits actually did use folklore, which was pretty fascinating.

And honestly, the trip would have been worth it for the “Myths and Legends” wall and the tasting room alone. The sour plum soda will haunt us until our dying day.

[This post was sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company.]
[Not Really.]

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