When the soft drink behemoth and branding superpower Coca-Cola decided
to open up its market to a fifth of the world's population in China near
the end of the 1920s, a problem arose. The Coke execs wanted to maintain the
pronunciation of the brand so that customers would ask for a "Coca-Cola" just as
they do in English-speaking countries. But when Chinese shopkeepers created their
own signs to promote the beverage, putting together a string of Mandarin characters
that were pronounced "ko-ka-ko-la," the characters they used meant something
completely incomprehensible. Instead of promoting Coca-Cola, they really
advertised what translated to "female horse fastened with wax," "wax-flattened
mare," or, my favorite, "bite the wax tadpole." I don't know about you, but nothing
sounds more refreshing to me than a tall glass of "bite the wax tadpole!'"
Those names certainly would not do, so Coke execs sorted through 40,000
Mandarin characters—two hundred of which were suitable for the sounds they
were trying to produce. Still, nothing quite represented a beverage one would
want to drink. So they compromised and chose "lé" instead of the troublesome
"la" sound to create the genius Rl P Rl?^. The new phrase sounded like "Coca-
Cola" and meant "to allow the mouth to be able to rejoice." One can imagine
how sales were affected when stores began marketing "happy taste buds" instead
of a "wax-flattened mare."
This story shows how Coke marketing execs overcame the language barrier
between English and Chinese and got everyone on the same page—if only for
the sake of selling a few million bottles of brown carbonated liquid. While urban
legend tells a different story, claiming egocentric Coca-Cola marketers pushed
the nonsensical phrases above (instead of the Chinese shopkeepers who were
actually responsible), the execs did in fact realize that the word "Coca-Cola"
didn't quite convey the same idea in Chinese, so they took great pains to find a
suitable altemative and make sure their meaning was not being confused.
* J.S.B Morse is the author of the new pop philosophy book, Everyone Agrees, from which this
article is an excerpted.
COCA-COLA, COMMUNICATION, AND CONFUSION 163
The Coke marketing genius seems to be one of a kind, but most of us fail
to realize that situations similar to the Coke problem arise in our lives every
day, even without the obvious language barrier. Communicating our ideas
effectively and efficiently is a task that is as difficult as it is underappreciated.
Finnish Communications Professor Osmo Wiio once summed up this notion
in a Murphy's Law-esque manner by saying, "Communication usually fails,
except by accident."^ And it is no wonder; just look at the complexity of
communication. An idea is developed in one person's mind, translated into some
form of communication (speech, writing, text-messaging), perceived by another
person (usually with some loss in fidelity), and finally translated into an idea in
the second person's mind. One of the main problems we face in communication
is that since we all use the same words, we assume that they have the same
definitions. People think they are on the same page when they are actually in
completely different books. This form of miscommunication happens in all types
of situations: in arguments about the quality of music, in political discussions,
and most dramatically, in religious debates.
On one side of the religious debate there is writer Christopher Hitchens,
biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and fifteen percent of
the world's population who claim that religion is "violent, irrational, intolerant,
allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free
inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."^ Or something
along those lines. On the other side of the debate stand scholar Dinesh D'Souza,
biologist Francis Collins, spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra, and the other eighty-five
percent of humanity who think that religion is a pretty darned good idea, including
2.1 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims, and nearly one billion Hindus.
On each side of this debate are groups of clever, thoughtful, and recognized
intellectuals who have found themselves diametrically opposed to each other on a
topic that has been around well before people knew what "diametrically" meant.
How can this be possible? How can a collection of extremely competent minds
have such vastly different views on the same exact thing? How can some rational
people see a single institution as the scourge of humanity, while others see the
same institution as the direct opposite, the savior of mankind? Could it be that the
two groups are not talking about the same thing?
Yes. When two people or two groups appear to disagree, they are really
talking about two different things, or at least two different aspects of the same
thing. They use the same labels, but those words have markedly different
connotations to the individual participants in the debate. Just as the label "ko-
ka-ko-la" meant a refreshing drink to an American and a wax-flattened mare to
a Chinese consumer, "religion" implies something different to atheists than it
does to religious adherents. Religion, to Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett, is a
164 ^ r C • APRIL 2009
manmade organization designed to coerce people into doing things for the benefit
of a few leaders. To D'Souza, Chopra, and Collins however, religion is a vehicle
used to uncover truth, give people hope and happiness, and promote morality. Each
participant's definition comes from his respective research, analysis of the subject,
and personal experience, all of which is unique to each person. The reason why
the two groups perceive the term "religion" so differently is not because the group
representing one side of the debate has been fooled while the group representing
the other is a bunch of geniuses. Nor is it because there is no absolute truth to what
religion is. Rather, it is because "religion" is one word being applied to two distinct
Another confijsing label in the realm of rehgion is the word "God," which
is one word consistently used to describe two separate ideas. But when people
argue about God, they rarely take the time to define their terms, so I asked them
to myself. Over a period of six months, I asked participants (people who claimed
to believe in God and people who claimed to be atheists) to describe their
impression of God via two online polls'*—one which allowed respondents to define
the controversial celestial presence in their own words and one which required
respondents to select their definitions from a designated list of words. For believers,
this was a fairly straightforward task, as those who believe in something usually
have a clear idea about the characteristics ofthat something. For atheists, the task
was a bit different. Since they don't believe God exists, some found it difficult
to describe the concept. "How can I describe something that doesn't exist?" they
Their point was well taken, but also easy to resolve. I certainly do not think the
Easter Bunny exists, but I can tell you a few things about it: it's around five feet
tall and wears a lot of really tacky pastel-colored garments. As humans, we may be
restricted by egocentricities and physical flaws, but we certainly are not restricted
by our lack of imagination; thus, describing something that does not exist should
be a feasible task. Likewise, if someone does not know with what characteristics to
describe something, how can he or she be certain of another characteristic for that
something, specifically its existence? The only reason I know that the Easter Bunny
does not exist is because I know that five-foot tall rabbits do not exist; even if they
did, they surely would not wear tacky pastel-colored garments. My goal in this poll
was to determine how atheists, who assert that God does not exist, define that God,
and to compare their definitions to those of the believers who assert that God does
exist. The results were oflen humorous and thoroughly enlightening.
Love. This is the word that believers used most often to describe God. In fact,
almost 75% of believers polled said that God is love (or loving), a characteristic
that is becoming much more synonymous with the deity every day. Some
respondents were more explanatory, quoting the passagefi-omthe Bible in which
COCA-COLA, COMMUNICATION, AND CONFUSION 165
John writes, "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."
Other popular characteristics attached to the believers' concept of God
include (in order of popularity) "just," "merciful," and "graceful"—all very
positive traits. Believers also see God as "kind," "forgiving," and "benevolent."
Some took a humorous approach and characterized God as having "happy bugs
flying around his head."
I am no psychologist, but since they believe such a positive entity exists,
I would guess that these respondents must be extremely optimistic people. In
essence, they believe that love, justice, and mercy exist and that those qualities are
embodied in a being they call "God."
On the other side of the equation, those respondents who claimed to be
atheists had a much difïerent take on the concept of God. Apart from taking a more
frivolous approach to the poll (Morgan Freeman was mentioned a number of times
as the embodiment of God, no doubt because of his godly acting in movies like
Bmce Almighty), atheists seemed to have a distinctly negative concept of God in
their heads. With the atheists, one word represented God more universally than
any other: "nothing." 32.5% of the atheist respondents used this word to label
the nonexistent God. But besides that tautological reference, atheists saw God
as "selfish," "hatefiil," "unjust," "vengeful," "controlling," and "contradictory"
(in order of popularity). If I thought a particular being was associated with those
words, I would hope it did not exist, too, and I certainly would not worship it. Who
would want a "sexist," "power-hungry," "thirty- to forty-foot-tall" "old man" with
"lightning bolts" looking over him everywhere he went?
These are ugly characteristics, to say the least. To atheists, God is a nasty—one
could almost say evil—being. The fact that the atheists believe this negative
being does not exist is a positive sign. To the atheists in this poll, one supematural
creature that is selfish, hateful, and unjust does not exist, nor does it have power
over us. From this, one might rightly conclude that these atheist respondents were
also an optimistic bunch.
At the very least, the nonbelievers were consistent. Their number one
response, "nothing," along with the synonyms they selected in the poll ("invisible,"
"fictitious," "fake") aligns perfectly with their claim that God does not exist.
"Nothing," by definition, does not exist. The believers were also consistent. One of
the believers' most popular characteristics for God was the word "everything," and,
by definition, "everything" does exist.
Thus, the two groups are perfectly consistent within their frames of reference;
the problem between atheists and believers occurs when you bring them together
and say the word "God." Immediately, the believer pictures a gracious, forgiving,
and loving being, and the atheist envisions a controlling, vengeful, and hateful
monster—they are not thinking of the same thing. But if they used their
166 £rC • APRIL 2009
definitions of "God" instead of the actual label, they would essentially agree.
Those who say God does not exist surely would not claim that love does not
exist. And, on the other side, believers certainly do not see a hateful, bearded old-
timer watching every move they make. When you get down to the definitions, the
two groups actually agree!
As it tums out, disagreement is nothing more than a lack of clarity, and once
clarity is attained, it is easy to see that everyone really agrees. Both sides of the
religious argument and in fact most public debates and interpersonal arguments
hold valid and rational points of view. Though they seem to disagree, this is
simply because they are not communicating their ideas effectively. This is an
easy trap to fall into because of a subtle but extremely problematic aspect of
human communication: we confuse the labels we hear in conversations with
the ideas we have in our heads. In essence, we blur the relationship between
perceptions and conceptions and assume that everyone shares our single
perspective. Our ability to translate ideas and concepts into communicative
language is our most effective and efficient means of transmitting ideas; but with
language comes the potential for miscommunication, which is detrimental to
society if it goes unrecognized.
However, if we can reconcile two rational yet seemingly opposite mindsets—
the sure ingredients for an argument—we will find that everyone actually agrees.
So, the next time you think you disagree with someone, I recommend that you
fix yourself a tall glass of RT P R J ^ and start defining your terms. You may just
find that you really agree.
1. "Snopes.com: Bite the Wax Tadpole." Snopes.com: Urban Legends Reference
Pages. 29 Jan. 2009 <http://www.snopes.com/cokelore/tadpole.asp>.
2. "Osmo Wiio: Communication usually fails, except by accident - (37signals)."
Simple small business software, collaboration, CRM: 37signals. 29 Jan.
3." Blog Archive » Hitchens v. God." Open Source. 29 Jan. 2009 <http://www.
4. Morse, Joseph. Define "God". Unpublished study, Amelior Institute. 2008.