In the United States, it seems our democracy, in tandem with our free market capitalism, has come to mean that we are endowed by our Creator with the inalienable right to choose sides. And there are usually two. And most (if not all) are actually corporations. There’s Tar Heel or Blue Devil. GM or Ford. PC or Mac. Visa or Mastercard. Pepsi or Coke. Army or Navy. Democrat or Republican.
This tendency to choose one of a limited number of sides has become deeply ingrained in the American identity. Just think of the sports rivalries we have cared so much about—for the capacity we’ve gained to feel like slugging a complete stranger who’s wearing the wrong color shirt at a sporting event (especially when there’s either Budweiser or Miller available at that event)! It’s almost as though we have a right to be angry at any poor sod who chose wrongly, given a 50/50 split. On the other hand, I’ve actually hugged a complete stranger at the conclusion of a UNC basketball game out of my joy at “our” victory.
Corporations have benefited greatly from our willingness to align ourselves with a team by managing to convince us to identify with one company or another—for superior flavor, a smoother ride, better service, or just a cooler product. Those identifications circumvent our logic, and sometimes even our better judgment. When two well-established companies pit themselves against one another successfully, their customer bases will notch up their loyalty—as though to support their brand against the other guy.
Today I experienced a poignant reminder of this tendency of ours toward a team-like allegiance to a corporate brand when the Coke repair guy visited me. I was baking a cake in our kitchen at Saxapahaw General Store (for a woman who actually preferred us to either Food Lion or Harris Teeter), when a man in a candy-striped shirt peered over the ice cream counter at me. “Are you in charge?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, wishing to avoid what I thought might be a sales pitch. He moved back a little, and I noticed his uniform was from Coke. He pressed on as though he hadn’t heard my response, and said, “You have a leaky Coke cooler.” I paused, and remembered at that moment having noticed water emerging from the soda cooler area of our store earlier that morning. But I hadn’t reported it for service, and I’d never seen this fellow before.
“How’d you know that?” I inquired. He informed me with no small measure of pride that he’d been told of our malfunctioning cooler by his colleague, our sales representative—the other Coke guy—and he’d headed right over to fix it.
Interested in this sudden surge of good service after months of having orders confused, products shoved at me, and signs placed in our store without permission, I directed the guy to the back of the store, where the Coke cooler stands—right next to the Pepsi cooler, in constant, silent rivalry.
Not terribly interested in what the Coke guy found to be wrong with his cooler, I returned to my cake, only to be interrupted again a few minutes later when he practically bounded to the front of the store and triumphantly proclaimed, “Ma’am, there’s nothing wrong with the Coke cooler. It’s the PEPSI cooler that’s leaky!”
He insisted on showing me his evidence—he’d removed the covers from both the compressors to point to the full tray of water in the Pepsi cooler and the bone-dry underside of his Coke appliance. He said, “You might want to get one of your people to empty that.” And he left.
I found this opposition—even between soda coolers—hilarious, particularly in the moment when the Coke guy (he never told me his name, nor asked me mine) seemed vindicated to learn that his appliance was not faulty—it was that other ass-hole’s that sucked.
But I have to admit that, upon further reflection, it’s troubling. That fellow cared not whether our store functioned well, or whether our Pepsi cooler ever worked again. Why would he? As a mercenary of Coke, it was his job to protect their asset and to ensure their brand wouldn’t be tarnished. The better for him, in fact, if the other guy’s cooler didn’t work. And while he didn’t know it, the fact wasn’t lost on me that we recently switched our soda fountain service from Coke to Pepsi because the service had been so bad our customers were becoming upset with us for out-of-stock beverage options (after all, when you prefer lemon lime soda, cola just won’t do). It seemed like some sort of corporate-karmic redemption that Coke’s cooler should be superior this time.
I’ve learned from my experience with the Coke guy, and the Pepsi guy, and the Bud and Miller guys, that this team-ish brand loyalty has led us all charging down a path to mediocrity. The advertising industry—the pied piper of the retail world—has tooted its flute at us, and we’ve been lured by our insatiable desire for preference. We have snuggled in with our fave teams, and the brands we love, and we’ve lined up in opposition to those products we hate and the players who suck and we have neglected to care whether we were actually in relationship with the people who actually make what we buy. And while we’ve been otherwise engaged, the quality of what we’re buying continues to decline—be it soft drinks, or sports, or health care, or politics.
If we keep at it, that privilege we so relish in this country—the prerogative for preference—won’t so much matter. The real choices have been disappearing under the illusion of the marketplace, and they’ve been replaced by a bunch of leaky coolers.
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