Counter-Cola: A Multinational History of the Global Corporation

Thanda Becomes Coca-Cola in Indian Hybrid Modernity

The “Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola” print advertisements went even further with their localization, looking like photographic evidence of how deeply ingrained Coca-Cola was in local culture,[1] representing the brand sign of global capitalism as an organic and constitutive element of all things thanda in the heat of Indian daily life and hybrid modernity.  Form meets content in these color “snapshots” which present themselves as spontaneous, uncomposed and authentic representations of the vibrant Indian quotidian – cooling down an overheating radiator, getting a refreshing bath, freshening up at a barbershop. 

One has to look twice to identify the subtle yet constructive cooling role Coca-Cola plays in concert with the agency of India’s common people – bottles almost completely camouflaged through context but with Coca-Cola’s iconic hourglass shape are fashioned into a trucker’s makeshift coolant applicator, a mother’s well decanter, and a barber’s spray -- each dispensing water, but crediting Coca-Cola with its fundamental thanda. 

But as these commercials went to air and print, Indian villagers were actively organizing against these symbolic and material enclosures of the system of rural/extraction and urban/consumption of the Coca-Cola commodity, protesting the dispossession of their communities’ water by neighboring Coca-Cola plants.  In the midst of this advertising campaign and mounting protest, photographer Sharad Haksar offered a competing image, capturing a shot of the ubiquitous Coca-Cola advertising as a backdrop to a dry hand pump and a line of empty water jugs.  Haksar rented a large billboard in downtown Chennai to display his photograph, entitled “Thirsty.”[2]  He explained:  "As a photographer, it is my take on the severe water shortage in the state and across India.  It is a fact and an irony that there is a shortage of drinking water while Coca-Cola is available everywhere."[3]  The Company, however, did not appreciate Haksar’s eye for the ironic and threatened legal action against him for copyright infringement. 

But the India Resource Center, a U.S. based non-profit that serves as a new media platform for organizing the transnational network of activists working in solidarity with Indian villagers protesting Coca-Cola, reported the threat of the suit and it was soon picked up by international news sources.  After public criticism ensued, the company quickly dropped its legal action.  Haksar’s billboard attempted to represent the dispossession of the water commons for profit and the ubiquity of the brand as commodity sign that claims ownership of common cultural meanings and spaces, a privatization of the symbolic that joined the enclosure of the environmental commons.
[1] Produced by the Indian office of the multinational McCann Erickson advertising agency, the campaign won Coca-Cola India Advertiser of the Year and Campaign of the Year in 2003.
[2] Photo of Sharad Haksar’s billboard photograph. Sharad Haksar, 2005,
[3] Monica Chadha, “Coke Tries to Can Indian Poster,” BBC News, Delhi, July 17, 2005

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