The New World of Coca-Cola

Review

of an Exhibition

by Brad Larson

Published on September 12, 2007

  • Description:

    I had a quick hour and a half before catching a cab to the airport, so decided to check out the New World of Coca Cola in downtown Atlanta, three months after opening in its new building. As are many other people in the museum field, I am interested in how for-profit venues and corporations attract, entertain, and occasionally inform visitors, with the thought that we may learn from them as they may learn from us. (I remember this was a theme at an ASTC conference I attended in Orlando back in the early 90’s after I started in Boston’s Children’s Museum).

    So, I embarked on my quick solo venture to this destination. (Do I call it a “museum”? It has aspects of history, art, and science museums. But maybe “attraction” is a better word). In any case, here are a few thoughts on my experience from start to finish:

    1) Green building, but do visitors know it?
    As I checked the website for operating hours before my visit (http://www.woccatlanta.com/), I was pleasantly surprised to see that the building was constructed in accordance with LEED standards. But, curiously, unless you had read this on the Website, you wouldn’t know about the green design during a typical visit. There is no mention of environmental considerations in the lobby or waiting areas, nothing in exhibits that I could find except for a few small signs (see photos), and no mention that I heard by any of the presenters. I began to wonder if the building wasn’t truly green – maybe it didn’t meet the specifications when it came down to it – or maybe the exhibit team was so busy getting everything else ready to open that they didn’t include that layer of information yet. Maybe it will be added later. In any case, I was impressed at the commitment as described on the Website – they scored major points with me on that front.

    2) Multiple waiting areas, but that’s ok.
    I didn’t realize when I started that I was going to have to go through three separate pulsed areas before being turned loose in the exhibits. But because I never had to wait more than 5-8 minutes or so in each space before something began, I didn’t mind. I started by paying for my ticket ($15!), then going through security, and then entering the lobby. It struck me that they are geared up for major traffic, but on the Saturday morning I attended (3 months after their opening), attendance was sparse around 10 am, and the multiple waiting areas didn’t seem necessary. The lobby provided a photo-op space in front of giant Coke bottles painted by artists. An official photographer was there – maybe to make it seem like more of an event – but most people snapped their own photos. A countdown timer indicated the large doors to the next space would open in 8 minutes.

    The next space was also a timed waiting area, though it seemed less so because a personable host came out and talked up the audience as we waited. Artifacts like a Norman Rockwell painting, some Coke hip hugger pants from the 70s, and a belt that Raquel Welch wore in an ad were behind glass along with vintage signage overhead occupied our attention.

    3) Large screen animation: The Happiness Factory.
    Energy and enthusiasm levels were kicked up a notch in the imaginatively animated “Happiness Factory” show, an entirely fanciful Rube Goldberg-esque presentation of what happens to produce a bottle of Coke from a vending machine. The characters (which reminded me of Aardman Animations’ work in Creature Comforts – maybe Aardman developed this?) were highly produced, with more action per second than I could take in, leaving a feeling that “I want to see this again.” In retrospect, this was my favorite area in terms of sheer enjoyment (besides the sampling area at the end). Once the animation finished, the screen lifted and we were released to explore the rest of the center at our own pace.

    4) Pop Culture Gallery
    This section opened with several Andy Warhol works featuring Coke cans, but the most popular section according to the staffmember is the red and white leather couch used in the “green room” of the American Idol tv show. You can sit on the couch, have your picture taken in it, and realize that “so and so sat here where I am now sitting.” (A gluteus kinesthetic style of learning?). Also popular was a section dramatically labeled “79 Days” during which the company dealt with the user backlash after introducing “New Coke”. Visitors loved talking about the debacle, drawing out their own feelings about the product. (Lesson for museums: talk about our failures and occasional wrong directions to visitors?)

    One other area in the exhibit allowed people to submit their own Coke stories via computer keyboard or handwritten notes which might be posted on the wall. I spent some time here given that visitor-created stories are a special interest of mine, and I submitted my own personal testimonial via computer: “I sometimes drink Coke.” (I signed my name “Brian” to preserve my privacy after irrevocably assigning the corporation rights to use my story. Let me know if you see if featured in any of their campaigns).

    5) Secret Formula 4-D Theater:
    This projected screen theater combined use of 3-D glasses along with moving seats and several other techniques such as wind gusts, water sprays, and a poking device in the back of the seat. As intriguing as all that sounds, for some reason I was never moved to that enchanted state that I felt when I first saw the Star Tours ride at Disney many years ago. Maybe I’ve seen too many of these types of theaters for the novelty to strike me. Or, it may be that the theater still needs to be “tuned” to the audience. (The chair motion often seemed abrupt to me and not so tightly coordinated to the scenes. Maybe the fact that the theater was lightly attended that morning threw off the hydraulics – I heard a lot of clacking of empty seats). On the other hand, this was one of the areas that integrated genuine content beyond a marketing message for Coke. Engaging pre-show animations reminded me that memory and expectation (via the cerebellum) are major factors in the perception of taste.

    6) Taste-It.
    When it all comes down to it, my favorite area was the space where you can sample carbonated beverages (all from Coca Cola) from around the world. Organized into stations by continent, each station offered eight or so beverages to choose from. I sampled them all, fifty or more. (Not a recommended procedure before rushing to get to the airport). This will probably be the favorite area for most visitors, and since it’s the last area before the store, it sends them out with a rush of enthusiasm (and high fructose corn syrup). This was the area most densely packed with visitors, which could potentially become a madhouse on busy days. But the area seemed clean and reasonably orderly despite the rush of hands to the soda fountains. (I noticed a staff member mopping the foot traffic areas underneath the fountains, combating the “shoe stickiness” factor which would be a major turn off).

    Though this is already a popular area, there were a few missed opportunities from my perspective. I would have liked to capitalize on the world connections themes — would also have liked to see photos of people from the country of origin where the sodas were, and hear sounds from places in those countries to tie the beverage to a more personal perspective. (I’ve long been interested in exhibits that build connections between cultures, and though I wouldn’t immediately think of soda as a connecting theme, there does seem to be a unique opportunity here).

    In summary:
    There were other sections I skipped or breezed through, such as history, polar bear photo op, a production line, and a video theater. All in all, it was an enjoyable experience. I’m glad I saw it. But as expected, it wasn’t a museum experience. It was a marketing experience. I ask myself, if the promotional messages are removed, what are the remaining messages for visitors? There were a few related to production processes and sensory perception. And there are potential messages to be tapped regarding stewardship of the environment related to the architecture that maybe they’ll add later.

    Museum considerations:
    • Is there a tension between green design and visual impact? What works with visitors?
    • Would it be helpful to visitors to sometimes acknowledge our mistakes and wrong directions in exhibits? (like the “79 Days” for New Coke).
    • Do we need to remind visitors how we’re different from corporate attractions, what additional values we add when they’re considering how to spend a Saturday morning?

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