Cola Consumption and the Chamula Indians
By Robin Ewing
Dec. 7, 2004
Mexico is the largest consumer of Coca-Cola per capita in the world. It is second only to the United States in overall consumption. In 2002, the average consumption rate per person in Mexico was 462 bottles a year.  “Some bottlers will tell you the people eat Coke, they don’t drink it,” said an analyst in an interview with Financial Times.
Why does Coke sell so well in Mexico? High sales are based on a combination of consumption patterns – availability, cost, safety, energy, social prestige, integration with local culture, appeal, and addiction – that are exploited and incorporated into marketing strategies by cola companies. The major cola competitors –Coke and Pepsi, have promoted their products through specific advertising strategies that promote the growth of these habits.
The Chamula Indians of southern Mexico are an example of cola marketing strategies at their best. Not only do they consume cola on a daily basis, they have incorporated it into their religion and made it the foundation for economic success.
This paper examines the role of cola in the lives of the Chamula Indians, the cola-consumption patterns of the villagers and the impact of marketing strategies by cola companies, in particular Coca-Cola, and the discourse in cola advertising.
Mexico’s connection with cola
As U.S. bottling sales started to outpace fountain sales in the 1920s, Coca-Cola began to expand globally. A bottling operation was established in Mexico in 1927, one of the first few countries to be included on its global expansion list. Today Mexico has 15 bottlers, 78 bottling plants and 465 supplier centers. Per minute, 205,216 bottles are filled. Coca-Cola directly employs 86,000 Mexicans and indirectly employs around 2 million.
Though Pepsi had been selling its product in Mexico since the early 1900s, Pepsi seriously entered the Mexican cola war in 1941, when a former Coca-Cola executive pushed through a sugar-rationing law which forced Pepsi to build bottling plants in Mexico. Since then, Pepsi and Coca-Cola ruthlessly compete with each other, both keeping a close eye on sales.
In the United States, Coca-Cola is made with cheap corn syrup but in Mexico Coke is still made with cane sugar.  Mexican Coke is often imported to the Untied States and sold at a higher cost in stores like H.E.B. Central Market.
There have also been political controversies in Mexico that Coke has been involved with. At the Tabasco Coke plant in 1999, the human resources director allowed members of the ruling party to attack Coke workers that were union dissidents on the grounds of the plant. The attackers used metal tubes, clubs and bayonets and the director locked the gate so that workers would be unable to flee.
Mexican President Vicente Fox was a former Coca-Cola executive – rising from delivery driver to company president over his 15-year career at the company. While employed as a Coca-Cola executive, Fox helped oust Pepsi as the number one soft drink in Mexico.
The cola war continues in Mexico. Pepsi has a contract with the major movie theater and also sells the highly-popular Gatorade. However, Coke continues to control 70 percent of the market.
Role of cola in life of Chamula Indians
The whitewashed church is the centerpiece of the dusty Chamula Indian village. No matter where you stand, your eye is drawn to the aqua semi-circles painted over the arches of the big wooden door. From far away, the building looks like part of a handmade, Mexican nativity scene. In front of the church is an outdoor market – wooden table and crates piled high with local fruits and vegetables. Men in fuzzy, black wool vests and women in colorful handmade dresses stand and sit in the dust. An old woman makes and sells dolls, red ribbons streaming from the dolls’ braided hair.
The inside of the church is cool and dark and the floor is covered with pine needles. Saints line the wall, and the alter at the far end displays a large statue of John the Baptist. Men and women kneel in ritual prayer in front of hundreds of multi-colored flickering candles, chickens squawking next to them. Next to the candles are bottles of soft drinks – most people have four lined up: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Orange Fanta and Sprite. In front of the bottles are clear shot glasses. Every so often, a person stops chanting and takes a shot of one of the liquids. The chickens are sacrificed – their necks broken.
Soft drinks – mostly Coca-Cola but also Pepsi – are ubiquitous here in this small Tzotzil Mayan village in Chiapas, Mexico, near the town of San Cristobal de las Casas. Javier Lopez Perez introduced Coke to Chiapas in 1962 and became wealthy as the only Coke distributor in the region. Pepsi and Coke seem to flip-flop for cola domination. Pepsi had a strong hold in the village for a long period of time but Coke currently dominates.
Coke stickers and advertisements are everywhere. My guide tells me the wealthiest people in the village are the Coke and Pepsi distributors (the Coke distributor a descendent of Lopez) and they are engaged in their own soft drink war. A store sell one or the other – not both. Coke came first, somehow managing to become an integral part of the Chamula Indian’s religion – a mixture of indigenous Mayan religion and Catholicism.
Catholic missionaries were only partially successful in their attempt to covert the locals to Catholicism. What resulted was a unique hybrid of cultures. The Indians never accepted Jesus but instead turned to John the Baptist as their saint. Catholic priests are shunned and run out of the village but our guide says that priests are allowed in certain instances such as baptisms.
The reason that cola has edged itself into the Chamula religion, our guide tells us, is that burping is considered cleansing because it expels the spirits. He tells us the integration of cola into the local religion has replaced more traditional herbs with healing properties because the Chamula pray for cures to illnesses – they do not go to doctors. Other sources say that before cola, the holy water was locally-made liquor called pox – sometimes still used as a supplement to cola.
Cola has also made an impact on social and economic culture in Chamula. The distributors run the town and conversations are often held over a bottle of Coke. Coke is also used to smooth out problems. If someone needs help from a neighbor, the request is accompanied by a case or two of cola. A 12-oz bottle is respectful and a large 2-litere is only for family consumption.
An article in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution quotes journalist Gaspar Morquecho as saying:
It (Coca-Cola) has become very important in all of life in Chamula, and in the indigenous population of other towns in the highlands of Chiapas. Coca-Cola connected itself not only to the economy but also to the powerful groups, the elite who have political, economic and cultural control.
Advertising and Consumption Patterns
Part of the Coke and Pepsi’s success depends on the availability of their products. Coke is for sale on almost every street in Mexico. In an article in the Financial Times, Coke’s marketing manager discusses the importance of availability:
Availability is key, confirms Rodolfo Echeverria, Coke’s marketing manager in Mexico. To buy a cola, few Mexicans need to leave their block. Most streets have small stores, kiosks, or at least a family selling from their front door. For these “Mom & Pop” stores, Coke is big business, producing 60 per cent of their profits, says Mr. Echeverria.
Before Lopez brought Coke to the Chamula, they would walk a mile to buy one. Now it is an integral part of everyday life. Either Coke or Pepsi is available at every store in the village. Pepsi offers free bottles, pays electricity bills and re-decorates stores for sellers that sign an exclusive contract.
The low cost of cola also contributes to high consumption rates. A bottle of Coke in the village was the cheapest I found in Mexico, about nine cents in 2001. A Newsweek reporter describes the following scene in San Chamula:
Nearby, two hefty women sit on the porch of a local store, with colorful shawls and beautifully braided hair. Everything around them, from walls to tables and chairs, is plastered with Coke stickers. Each holds a tiny infant. But instead of a breast or a bottle of milk, they nurse their babies with a cold glass bottle of Coke. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Coke is cheaper than milk.
Another key factor, as evident in the Chamula’s religious rituals, is integration into local culture. Coke participates in local events and knows what to offer vendors and customers. For example, in 2002, Coke offered free kilos of beans in exchange for bottle caps.”
A number of other factors contribute to high cola-sales. In many places, such as San Chamula, the water is undrinkable. Locals turn to the safety in bottled drinks. For poor under-fed laborers, the high sugar content and caffeine is a cheap, quick energy source. In Mexico’s hot climate, cold colas are appealing for their refreshing quality. Two-thirds of Coke sellers in Mexico receive free refrigerators to hold only Coke products.
Sidney W. Mintz traces the consumption of sugar – the main ingredient in cola – through European history and describes it as one of three “first edible luxuries to become proletarian commonplaces; they were surely the first luxuries to become regarded as necessities by vast masses of people who had not produced them.”
In addition, sugar and caffeine are two highly addictive substances used in colas. A study at Johns Hopkins states the following:
We know adults and children can become physiologically and psychologically dependent on caffeinated soft drinks, experiencing a withdrawal syndrome if they stop. Earlier research at Hopkins shows that withdrawal symptoms typically include headache and lethargy, and last a day or two.
In 1988, Landor & Associates conducted a world-wide survey and determined that Coca-Cola was the most recognized brand in the world.  It has a pattern of forcing vendors to sign exclusive deals and providing vendors with free perks. Eric Schlosser describes this pattern in his book Fast Food Nation and Coke’s marketing strategies to raise sales through advertising to children. Again, availability is a key point in Coke’s marketing system.
Discourse in advertising is a key component. Coke’s revolves around period slogans such as “coke is it,” “can’t beat the real thing” and “have a coke and a smile.” It consistently uses words that refer to cola consumption such has “delicious” and “refreshing.”
Cola-consumption patters in San Chamula include easy availability, low cost, safety, energy, social prestige, integration with local culture, appeal, and addiction. Cola companies exploit these consumption patterns and use them in marketing plans that target local populations. Discourse plays a crucial role in advertising. Mintz describes sugar as “the first substance to become the basis of advertising campaigns to increase consumption.”
Health implications of excessive cola consumption are far reaching, especially in a society where infants are weaned on cola. Colas cause bone loss and sugar rots teeth as well as contributing to other diseases such as diabetes.
A billion Coke products are consumed every day. Coke operates in more than 200 countries with over 400 brands. As the Coca-Cola website states:
The Coca-Cola Company and its network of bottlers comprise the most sophisticated and pervasive production and distribution system in the world. More than anything, that system is dedicated to people working long and hard to sell Coca-Cola, diet Coke, Sprite, Fanta and other company products.
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