Coca-Colonization: The Exportation of "America" to Europe Following World War II

“The truth of the matter is that Europe's requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products — principally from America — are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character.” General George C. Marshall[1]

At the end of the Second World War, Europe lay in disarray of every kind; political, social, and economic problems riddled the continent. Surely, no one country within Europe, after being under the Nazi heal for so long, could escape such problems without the help of an outside and economically strong source. This source was the United States of America. But at what cost would this aid come?

With the amount of American money, businesses, and troops going to post-war Europe after the implementing of the Marshall Plan in 1947, surely certain walks of life would change. And no doubt, most countries receiving Marshal Plan aid transformed into analogous units of America, thereby becoming Americanized. But what specifically was Americanization, and was this change widely accepted? This article will seek out how companies such as Coca-Cola and Levi’s Jeans, embodiments of America, did not merely sell their products to Europeans, but sold various American ideals to foreign landscapes. In this, one will see how there existed an acceptance and rejection to this transposing of ideals onto European countries, and why this dichotomy of acceptance existed.

To begin such an analysis, one must adequately define Americanization, while at the same time define what it means to be "American," at least to others around the world. Being American not only represents a specific people, but it instills a sense of culture built around acceptance and freedom, as well as corporatism and consumerism. To this extent, the mere word Americanization “serves in a discourse of rejection to point to the variety of processes through which America exerts its dismal influences on European cultures.”[2] In juxtaposing America against Europe, the major differences seem to come from the social and economic spheres. While Europe is widely known as being liberal, America, at times, is quite the opposite. In terms of economics, much of Europe practices free-market economics – as does America. But, where Europe differs is the amount of corporatism, and all that goes along with it, the advertising, the big business, etc. that it finds acceptable.

All of these differences therefore sum themselves into American culture. By giving European countries aid, America was undoubtedly transposing its culture onto these areas. With the corporations and advertisements flooding the streets of Paris, and American products invading West Germany, many Europeans realized a change had occurred. But what was this change?

By allowing aid to flow into Europe’s countries, many corporate heads saw the European continent as a new frontier – a vastly untapped monetary resource. Corporations and big businesses flocked to Europe, hoping to make money off of the booming Marshall Plan economies. One of these corporations was Coca-Cola – an extremely commercial, and extremely American soft drink company. “Perhaps no commercial product is more thoroughly identified with America than Coca-Cola...'Apparently some of our friends overseas have difficulty distinguishing between the United States and Coca-Cola,’”[3] said one company man. Some Europeans did not simply see Coca-Cola as a sugary drink, but bottled America.

Soon, Coca-Cola’s outreach in Europe had been felt everywhere, and “the late 1940s saw Coca-Cola expand rapidly on the continent. Bottling operations began in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in 1947; then came Switzerland and Italy; and France followed in 1949.”[4] Billboards and advertisements for Coke products began appearing everywhere. American ideas were now being pushed on Europeans every time they sipped a bottle of Coke. In 1950, Time Magazine proclaimed, “Its advertising, which garnishes the world from the edge of the Arctic to the Cape of Good Hope, has created more new appetites and thirsts in more people than an army of dancing girls bearing jugs of wine.”[5] America, in being a consumer and corporate entity, was therefore pushing their culture onto Europe through the Coke vehicle. European countries, it seemed, had been colonized themselves – Coca-colonized.

But what did this change mean? Overall, America was not simply selling a soft drink to Europe; no, it was selling American ideas. In advertisements there lay American ideas, and in Coke, there existed the symbol of America. After a while, many European countries began to actually reject these ideas by rejecting Coke. In France, the Communist party and the Wine growers fought the Coke Company in the French National Assembly[6], while in Italy newspapers were claiming the drink turned one’s hair white.[7] While many of these claims regarding Coke were quite false, they nevertheless struck a nerve with people. But, one must ask, why such hatred for Coca-Cola? Was this rejection of the company a rejection of Coke, or was it a rejection of American ideals and culture?

Although some Europeans drank Coke not worrying about its American roots, others saw Coke as an invasion to their nationalistic identities, similar to that of their previous Nazi oppressors. “There is a resilience to the old European cultures that refuses to be washed away easily.”[8] The various countries of Europe had been so oppressed under Nazi rule, that all knowledge of nationalism, let alone culture, was simply crushed. Under some miracle, the culture survived into the post-war period. What these people saw was not a simple vendor selling a carbonated drink, but they saw a very sharp-edged threat to their already weak nationalism. They were not scared at heart of their hair turning white, or the overall effects of Coca-Cola; Europeans were in fear of their culture becoming swallowed again in that of another, just as Nazi Germany had done just years before. Europeans did not see signs that said, “drink in Coke”, but signs that said, “drink in American ideals.” In the end, Europeans were not asking for American ideals with the acceptance of the Marshal Plan and corporations which came with it; they were simply asking for a means in which to restart their own nationalistic countries.

While many countries disassociated themselves with the American ideals of Coca-Cola, others found themselves wishing to embody such ideals, therefore accepting American products, and Americanization. Perhaps one of the more accepted American fashion pieces was the jeans of Levi Strauss and Co. And while these German invented pants were anything but American, over time they found themselves right at home amongst hot dogs, baseball, and Coca-Cola. Europeans watching American westerns saw their favorite cowboys wearing jeans, and had to have a pair; European females saw their favorite models in American fashion magazines, and also had to own the blue denim. Even in the dark days of the Bosnian War, one American reporter staying in Bosnia found himself being begged, left and right, to buy the Bosnian inhabitants of Goražde pairs of Levi Jeans. “Jeans! Levi’s! American-made! Original 501’s,”[9] the Bosnian girls cried. Why was Europe able to accept this staple of Americana, and not that of Coca-Cola?

In the end, the differences in the acceptance of these two American symbols tell us a great deal about the ideals which Europeans hold to. In the destruction after World War II, there existed an eagerness of Europeans to restore their nations to their proper working order. To do this, these countries required aid, which they received from America in the form of the Marshall Plan. In a time after these countries had experienced enough change under Nazi rule, Europeans were on guard about any other possible threats of cultural change. Coca-Cola, with its various plants and advertisements represented such a threat. Not because it would destroy the health of those who drank it, but because of the capitalistic prospects behind it - prospects which many Europeans found unacceptable.

On the other hand, Europeans saw a product in movies and magazines that they had to have. And although there existed no apparent difference between the selling of one product and the other, Europeans found jeans culturally acceptable. The reason for this difference is simply because there existed no apparent capitalistic schemes behind Levi’s. While Coke was an economic invasion by America into Europe, Levi Jeans were simply a representation of American style, without the harsh ideals of corporatism and big business that most of Europe feared so much. One European author claims, “America has replicated itself into icons, clichés of itself that leave their imprint everywhere, on T-shirts, in commercial images, and in our heads.”[10] By the time Levi Jeans were popular the world over, they did not represent American ideals as Coke had; they represented America itself, as a cultural and stylistic identity, not as a political or economic identity.

Ultimately, there exist really two forms of Americanization. One form is the cultural representation: products such as Levi Jeans – a form that is socially accepted.The other form exists as a product, such as Coke, which embodies the economic and political aspects of America – aspects that were not so accepted in Europe at this time. In looking at these different forms ofAmericanization, one can see why one of the two forms faired well in Europe, and why one did not. It can also be seen that in selling Coke to Europe, there really did exist a colonization, in which American business was attempting to alter and control European thinking regarding capitalism and big business. Levi’s, on the other, merely wished to sell style through jeans.


[1] General George Catlett Marshall, “The Marshall Plan Speech”, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, June 5, 1947.

[2] Rob Kroes, If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen the Mall: Europeans and American Mass Culture , (Chicago: Urbana and Chicago, 1996), Intro x.

[3] Richard F. Kuisel, “Coca-Cola and the Cold War: The French Face Americanization, 1948-1953,” in French Historical Studies , Vol. 17, No. 1, (Duke University Press, 1991), 97-98.

[4] Richard F. Kuisel, 99.

[5]“The Sun Never Sets on Cacoola,” Time Magazine , (May 15, 1950).

[6] Richard F. Kuisel, 102.

[7] Judy Colp Rubin, “The Five Stages of Anti-Americanism,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, http://www.fpri.org/enotes/20040904.americawar.colprubin.5stagesanti

americanism.html.

[8] Rob Kroes, 178.

[9] Joe Sacco, Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95, (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2000)

[10] Rob Kroes, 175.

Undoubtedly, many Europeans found the sight of Coke combined with U.S. soldiers years after the war unsettling.
Undoubtedly, many Europeans found the sight of Coke combined with U.S. soldiers years after the war unsettling.

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Farmer Brown 5 years ago

Ah ha! As seen in the Philippines as well. From my experience, I have seen that there is that acceptance of American goods, but also a revulsion for being "Americanized". Fantastic hub!

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