World War II and the Cola War

As America fought the Axis, cola soft drinks fought each other

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Convalescing servicemen at a Paris hospital gather around a Coca-Cola dispenser during World War II, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

There was another war going on in the United States in the 1940s — one that had started long ago: The Cola War.

oca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, the two leading American cola brands, were both created in drug stores in the South. Atlanta, Georgia pharmacist John Pemberton conceived of a brown carbonated drink with a distinctive taste in 1886. It was named “Coca-Cola” by his partner, Frank Robinson, who also designed the iconic script brand name. Former medical student and New Bern, North Carolina drug store owner Caleb Bradham invented “Brad’s Drink” in 1893, renaming it “Pepsi-Cola” in 1898.

Early on, Coke and Pepsi had “Cola” in their names, a similar product appearance, logos that looked alike and (some would say) a taste that was nearly identical. It isn’t surprising, then, that Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola duked it out for market share from the very beginning.

Vintage Coca-Cola sign by Dsdugan, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Coca-Cola was already an internationally popular soft drink when World War II started. The soft drink claimed to be the original cola; the slogan in 1942 was, “The Only Thing Like Coca-Cola is Coca-Cola Itself.” The company aimed to cement that position by making a bold wartime offer, pledging “that every soldier in the field would be able to buy a Coke for a nickel, regardless of what it cost the company,” according to Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola made good on its promise when casual Coke drinker General Dwight D. Eisenhower in June 1943 urgently requested the company to ship materials and equipment for ten bottling plants to be built overseas. Included in the request was an order for three million filled bottles of Coca-Cola.

Within six months of the general’s request, a company engineer had flown to Algiers in northern Africa to open the first Coca-Cola plant. Not ten but sixty-four bottling plants were eventually shipped abroad during the war. The plants were located as close as possible to European and Pacific theatres so soldiers would always have access to the beverage.

To operate the plants, some 150 “Technical Observers” — Coca-Cola employees — were brought in to serve Coke to every GI, wherever they happened to be located. The employees dressed in fatigues and were treated deferentially. They may not have fought in the war, but they were nicknamed “Coca-Cola Colonels” by the thankful service men and women. Coca-Cola was a welcome morale booster that continued to be served to the troops throughout the war: Five billion bottles were consumed by service personnel during World War II, not to mention the Coca-Cola served up through dispensers and on the field.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Coca-Cola continued to produce the beverage for consumers, even though sugar was being rationed. By operating an ammunition loading plant in Alabama and distributing Coke to troops for five cents a bottle, the Coca-Cola Company qualified to be excluded from sugar rationing during the war.

At the time, Coca-Cola typically produced beautifully illustrated full-page, full color print ads that frequently touted the morale of soldiers and war workers. For example, one ad suggested, “Next to wives, sweethearts and letters from home, among things our soldiers mention most is Coca-Cola.”

Coca-Cola was always working on ways to integrate a war message into its advertising, even during the holiday season. According to the company, “One of our early Christmas ads featuring the famous Coca-Cola Santa Claus even had a war bond poking out of Santa’s bag. Santa and the company were supporting the war effort.” Many of the company’s war era ads referred to Coca-Cola’s well-known slogan from 1929, “The Pause that Refreshes.” Some ads also alluded to Coca-Cola as “The Real Thing,” a phrase that would be adopted as the soft drink’s slogan in the 1960s.

Pepsi-Cola logo, registered trademark, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Before the war, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola typically sold 6.5-ounce bottles of cola for five cents. Then Pepsi came up with a gimmick that differentiated it from Coca-Cola. In 1934, right after the Great Depression, Pepsi began to sell a twelve-ounce bottle for just five cents. Most consumers could sing the catchy Pepsi radio jingle: “Pepsi-Cola hits the spot, Twelve full ounces that’s a lot, Twice as much for a nickel too, Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you.” “Pepsi-Cola Hits the Spot” went on to become Pepsi’s enduring slogan into the 1950s.

Pepsi’s generous five-cent twelve-ounce bottle increased the soft drink’s pre-war popularity, but during World War II, Pepsi-Cola simply could not outflank Coca-Cola in the Cola War. For one thing, unlike Coca-Cola, Pepsi was forced to go outside the United States to Mexico to obtain sugar for beverage production. For another, Pepsi never could match the manner in which Coca-Cola penetrated the armed forces. Pepsi-Cola complained to the federal government about Coca-Cola’s favored status on the battlefield to no avail. Instead, Pepsi tried to endear itself to soldiers and their families by opening recording booths around the country so members of the armed forces could make records to send home.

Pepsi’s wartime advertising was far more modest than Coke’s. One of its black-and-white print ads featured the headline, “American energy will win!” The ad depicted a “Food Energy Comparisons” chart that showed a bottle of Pepsi-Cola at the top because it had the most calories. The accompanying copy read, “America has a big job to do — a big job that requires every ounce of energy of men and women everywhere. To help keep up this energy, to help boost morale, millions call for Pepsi-Cola. It provides quick food energy and offers a welcome lift during a hard day. Speed up, America. Let’s go!

Despite Pepsi-Cola’s wartime marketing, Coca-Cola was the cola soft drink most associated with the American war effort.

Royal Crown Cola sign by Smash the Iron Cage, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

A third cola, Royal Crown Cola, was the 1934 product of Nehi, a company that got its start in the early 1900s. “RC” Cola, as it was popularly known, achieved distinction right before World War II by becoming the first cola to launch a blind taste test. When RC won the taste test, the product was promoted heavily by the likes of such celebrities as Bing Crosby and Shirley Temple. An ugly decades-long lawsuit between Nehi and Coca-Cola over Nehi’s use of the word “cola” in advertising finally ended in favor of Nehi in 1944.

It seems that American consumers couldn’t get enough of cola in the 1940s, so RC Cola became a worthy opponent of Coke and Pepsi during World War II. However, RC Cola’s popularity quickly faded by the late 1950s — despite the fact that the newly named Royal Crown Cola Company was the first to create a diet cola called Diet Rite.

World War II set the tone for a Cola War that continues to this day. While RC Cola still exists, its market share pales in comparison to its two larger rivals. Even now, first-place Coca-Cola and second-place Pepsi-Cola battle it out in the United States and around the world.

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