WASHINGTON, DC—"Greater love hath no man than this for great cola taste: that he should lay down his life for a new generation." So reads the inscription at the base of Washington, D.C.'s newest landmark: The United States Cola War Veterans Memorial.
A 60-foot-high black granite sculpture honoring the advertising executives who lost their families and jobs in the most bitter advertising war in U.S. history, the Cola War Memorial was officially unveiled Monday.
"From 1983 to 1991, the U.S. Cola War ravaged the American advertising industry, pitting agency against agency in a bitter struggle between Coke and Pepsi," said onetime Pepsi pitchman Lionel Richie at the memorial's dedication. "None who experienced the war can forget it, but we need this memorial to help us remember."
Monday's ceremony was attended by thousands of Cola War veterans, many of whom were overcome with emotion as they recalled their war experiences.
"Back in '89, I was stationed on Madison Avenue, between 53rd and 54th," said veteran Gene Meacham, who served with Saatchi & Saatchi from 1988 to 1991. "It was horrible. People were getting laid off left and right. One morning, I walked into the office, and Roger, my copywriting partner on the 'Just For The Taste Of It' campaign, was gone, his desk completely cleaned out. He was fired in the blink of an eye. I was late for a strategy meeting. I didn't even have time to grieve."
Even for those who went on to win promotions and climb the corporate ladder, the scars remain.
"It was brother against brother," said Cola War veteran Nathan McCune, now creative director for BBDO. "A lot of the people I graduated from Wharton Business School with in '83 were drafted by Coca-Cola agencies, and I wound up serving with Pepsi. There was always that paralyzing fear that you'd run into an old classmate at an annual beverage retailers' convention, and he would suddenly be the enemy."
For other veterans, the brutal, caffeinated war took an even greater toll: To date, more than 5,000 veterans have been diagnosed with what doctors have dubbed "Cola War Syndrome."
"For years after the war, any time I went to the supermarket and saw those rows of two-liter bottles, I was back there in the office," said James Pritchett, a homeless veteran who served with the Lintas Group from 1984 to 1990. "The jingles would start running through my brain, and I could smell the laser printer ink from the production office. Suddenly, I wasn't in the grocery store anymore. I was in hell."
On top of their own suffering, many veterans still feel great bitterness toward the thousands of advertising executives who dodged Cola War service altogether. In 1989, at the height of the war, some 1,500 executives across the nation switched to other accounts, most notably cars and breakfast cereals. Still others left the advertising industry entirely, finding work in public relations or consulting.
While veterans from both sides of the Cola War were moved and honored by the new memorial, controversy still remains over Pepsi's decision to drop the Uh-Huh bomb in May 1991.
"They didn't have to do it," said Harvard University history professor Arthur A. Gould. "By all indications, the war would have been over within six months, anyway."
"When the marketing director announced the Diet Pepsi 'Uh-Huh!' campaign, a slogan of awesome power and catchiness backed by Ray Charles' high recognition factor, I was morally outraged," said Thomas Rendell, a member of the Diet Pepsi creative team's inner circle during the war. "I told him, 'We cannot do this. We can win the war by sane means.' But he was adamant, and in the end I had no choice."
Seven years after the Cola War's end, with the dedication of the new memorial, there is a sense among veterans that the wounds can finally begin to heal.
"When you think about it, we weren't all that different. Both sides really wanted the same thing: to sell carbonated, caramel-flavored beverage products to the masses," Leo Burnett CEO Pat Allaire said.
On display at the base of the memorial are hundreds of letters written by those who fought in the war. Among the many stirring testimonials is a letter written many years ago by a nameless, 21-year-old copywriter who lost his job in the Cola War. It reads: "I dream of a day when there is no Coke, of a day when there is no Pepsi. On this day, the people of the world will not be bitterly divided between two leading brands. On this day, there will be only one beverage, uniting us all: sweet, refreshing cola."
Will the memorial provide a sense of closure to those whose lives were forever changed by the prolonged conflict? Gazing at the proud, silent memorial, retired Saatchi & Saatchi copywriter Doug Wennington summed up the hopes of ad executives everywhere: "Perhaps, one day we will have closure. A refreshing new sense of closure—with attitude."