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So, Apple, You're Now the World's Top Brand: Here's the Fate That Awaits You

On Monday, Apple (and, in second place, Google) surpassed Coca-Cola as the most valuable brand in the world according to an annual report by the consultancy Interbrand -- a title the beverage behemoth has claimed since the start of the report's run 13 years ago. It's the end of an era in which Coca-Cola's international ubiquity and global recognition seemed untouchable. By dint of its links to American culture, the soda has occupied an often bizarre place in political movements around the world, frequently serving as an expression of solidarity with -- or distaste for -- the West and the capitalist culture it exports. A verb was even coined to reflect the beverage's association with cultural imperialism: to "coca-colonize" means to "bring (a foreign country) under the influence of U.S. trade, popular culture, and attitudes." Here's a look back at some of Coke's most memorable cameos in international relations.

Post-War Reconstruction in France: Poujadism, the movement that gave rise to the term coca-colonization, emerged out of resistance to the rapid urbanization and industrialization that post-World War II reconstruction brought to France in the 1950s, and took aim at both crippling inflation and an influx of foreign -- especially American -- goods that squeezed local industries. Poujadism's anti-Americanism climaxed, absurdly, with rumors that Coca-Cola had bought Notre-Dame cathedral, intending to cover its western façade with a billboard.

One of the first known uses of the term coca-colonization dates back to 1949, when the French Communist party introduced a bill banning the importation and sale of Coca-Cola in France, warning of "an immediate menace to our production of wines, of aperitifs with a wine base," and other drinks. "This grave danger resides in the methodical, powerful organization of a massive Coca-Cola invasion of France," an explanation attached to the bill read.

The Cold War: In January 1985, the Soviet government struck a deal with the president of Coca-Cola at the time, Donald R. Keough, that gave the company permission to officially sell its products in the Soviet Union, ending Pepsi's monopoly in the country. But Coke had made inroads in the country well before then. Marshal Georgi Zhukov, a Soviet war hero, used to order specially made Coca-Cola so that he wouldn't be seen drinking an "American imperialist symbol." Dwight Eisenhower had introduced Zhukov to the beverage and Zhukov, in an effort to avoid Joseph Stalin's disapproval, had a chemist at Coca-Cola remove the caramel color from the drink and put it in a clear bottle with a red star. Zhukov received 50 cases of White Coke in his first shipment.

In November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, Coca-Cola understood the symbolic implications of the moment, taking the opportunity to hand out free Coke to East Germans walking into West Berlin.

The Iraq War: The soda's symbolism remained potent into the 21st century, as Coca-Cola-themed demonstrations cropped up against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. University organization in Nicaragua arranged "One Day Without Coca Cola" as part of a spate of protests and boycotts of other American products, and a banned rebel group in India targeted stores that sold Coca-Cola (as well as Pepsi) in raids that ended with a bombing of one of the stores. In Thailand, protesters dumped Coca-Cola into the streets, and sales of the beverage were temporarily suspended over the invasion.

The United States, of course, is intimately familiar with beverage politics: one of the most iconic demonstrations in American history, the Boston Tea Party, was a rejection of the British injustices that tea and the East India Company had come to symbolize for American colonists. In much the same way, Coca-Cola has become synonymous with American imperialism, making its consumption the subject of attacks by anti-American leaders from Hugo Chávez to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. California-based Apple may not fully step into the symbolic role that Coca-Cola has long played -- $500 smartphones aren't as likely to be smashed in the street, after all -- but the world's newest most valuable brand is surely subject to some of the same unsavory associations with the United States that made Coca-Cola a simultaneously loved and despised brand worldwide.

iPhone-colonization, anyone? 

FARJANA K. GODHULY/AFP/Getty Images

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Why Millions of Chinese Are Watching 'Breaking Bad'

This is a guest post from Warner Brown, a frequent contributor to FP's Tea Leaf Nation who works in urban development in Shanghai. 

Why do millions of Chinese care about a fictitious meth cook from New Mexico? The television drama series Breaking Bad, which depicts embattled high school chemistry teacher Walter White's transformation into a crystal methamphetamine kingpin and airs its final episode on Sunday, has unquestionably become a cultural phenomenon in the United States (viewership reached 6.6 million for the series' penultimate episode last week). But it has also attracted a relatively large audience in China, where it's known as jueming dushi -- "The doomed drug master." An average season of Breaking Bad receives over 10 million views on streaming sites like Sohu.com, more than double that of other recent acclaimed American dramas like Mad Men. (It's still a fraction of the 159 million views that The Big Bang Theory's most recent full season received in China.)

Like YouTube, Chinese video streaming sites include comments sections. And Chinese fans fill the comment threads for each Breaking Bad episode with hundreds of responses, which help explain what the show means to Chinese viewers. Commenters on early episodes, for example, tend to be skeptical about the series' premise: Walter, who receives a cancer diagnosis while holding down two jobs and caring for a son stricken with cerebral palsy, is compelled by poverty and circumstance to begin cooking crystal meth. As one Chinese commenter put it, "A teacher has a house with a pool and a car -- why does he still have no money and have to go work extra hours in a car wash, and in the end cook drugs?"

For many Chinese, rapidly rising home prices -- up more than 10 percent from last year in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai -- make home ownership a distant dream. A car is another expensive badge of success, made even more unattainable thanks to license plate quotas in some cities. What's more, White lives not in some high-rise shoebox, but in a detached house -- "villa" is the slightly awestruck Chinese term -- with a pool and two cars in the driveway. Owning a "villa" with a pool is a near-impossible dream for any but the wealthiest Chinese. To Chinese eyes, with all of these material hurdles crossed, Walter had made it even before he began cooking meth.

That the Whites are still viewed as poor discomfits some Chinese viewers, who live in a country bootstrapping itself into prosperity -- where the average income per capita hovers around $6,000. They see a U.S. society in which the indignities of lower middle class life and the stigma of frustrated potential can cling to people even after they acquire the accoutrements of success. As one user wrote, "Let me tell you, having a car and house and still being considered poor -- now that's scary."

In other ways, Chinese Breaking Bad fans react to the show in the same way that their U.S. counterparts do. They dissect each episode's plot and joke that they should have paid more attention in chemistry class. They debate the show's depictions of meth-making while pondering if a Walter White could emerge in China's underground meth industry. They admire Breaking Bad's black humor and cheer Walter, whom they call "Old White," and his partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman -- "Little Pink" -- as they escape from drug lord Gus Fring, who manages a fast-food chain as a cover for his meth dealing. Chinese viewers often call him "Brother Fried Chicken" and, somewhat more problematically, "Obama's twin."

Like some U.S. fans, Chinese viewers have criticized Skyler White, who transitions from a wife suspicious of her husband's odd behavior to a knowing but often reluctant accomplice. Hatred of Skyler in the United States is often attributed to misogynistic fans who see the cautious mother of two as interfering with the show's male power fantasy, and Chinese criticisms of the controversial character are strikingly similar. Some Chinese comments paint her as "insufferably arrogant and bossy," and a "psycho bitch" who "needs a beating."

A common refrain criticizes Skyler as ungrateful for Walt's efforts to provide for his family by whatever means necessary. The notion that all of Walt's actions are ultimately for the good of his wife and children carries weight in China, with some viewers lamenting that members of the White family begin to pull away as Walter's drug business grows. One comment makes explicit the friction between culturally divergent attitudes toward family ties: "That's why the United States is so great and strong. People focus on whether your actions are right or wrong, and aren't so nepotistic. Fairness and freedom -- this is what makes the United States so attractive!"

Although this remark sparked a flurry of replies, politics are relatively rare in Chinese discussions of Breaking Bad. A notable exception is in a widely discussed review of the show's first season on the popular web forum Douban.com, where young Chinese intellectuals discuss literature and film. In "A Show that Profoundly Exposes the Ugly Face of Capitalism," author Wang Huan depicts Breaking Bad's successes and the United States' failings in exaggerated -- and probably satirical -- prose:

It really makes me sorrowful that in a capitalist country a teacher can receive such lowly treatment.... Suffering from disease and the burden of his family, Mr. White turns to a path of crime. He is not just rejecting his fate, but also the evils of the capitalist system ... after I finished watching this show, I was unsettled for a while, until I opened my nearby copy of Only Socialism can Save America [a 2010 book about the failures of Wall Street and U.S. capitalism] and thought for a long, long time.

 

Correction: This post originally referred to Gus Fring as African-American. In fact, the show suggests Fring is Chilean.