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Camp or Cola?

Sandip Roy with a Campa Cola.
Sandip Roy
Sandip Roy with a Campa Cola.

It’s a swelteringly hot summer in Kolkata. Air conditioner sales are going through the roof. And all over the city, in fancy restaurants and little roadside shacks, people are asking for a cold drink.
Now there is one fizzy drink to join the party. Campa Cola.
To the uninitiated it’s like a Coca Cola knock off. But it’s story connects India and the United States.
This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata.
Coca Cola was basically American capitalism in a bottle says a video from the Business Casual channel

BC1: During the 20th century as capitalism spread around the world so too did Coca Cola to the point where the only place left where you can’t get it today is North Korea.

India though wanted to be self sufficient after Independence. Even in colas. Pepsi was denied entry but Coca Cola had already set up bottling plant and a distribution network by then. So it got to rule the roost. But protectionist Indian politicians weren’t happy about Coca Cola’s popularity,

BC2: A favourite statistic of theirs was while only 10% of India’s villages had safe drinking water, 90% had access to Coca Cola.

So they passed a law saying a foreign company couldn’t own more than 40% equity in any business in India. Even worse it would need to divulge its secret formula so that it could be made locally in India.
So Coca Cola chose to exit the market in 1977.
A government-owned company launched an Indian cola called Double 77 which fell flat. As columnist and marketing professional Santosh Desai told the New York Times it “was a government-produced cola and it tasted like that.”
Then Coca-Cola’s main bottler in India, Pure Drinks, hurriedly launched a knockoff - Campa Cola and that hit the jackpot. Campa Cola and Thumbs Up became India’s answer to the Coke and Pepsi wars.
There was more to life with Campa Cola. Or so its jingle promised us.

CAMPA COLA JINGLE1: There’s more to life with campa cola,

Of course we knew they were not the real stuff. Salman Rushdie called them “disgusting local imitations.” That was a little harsh but from its name to its font, Campa Cola was always pretending to be its American cousin unlike Thums Up which was a bit spicier. And we played along because we had no other options just as many Indians wore Levis knockoffs called Lavis. Campa Cola promised us “The Great Indian Taste” but as soon as anyone went abroad they ordered a Coke. Nothing tasted like going abroad like a real Coca-Cola.
Then in 1993 when India opened up its markets Coca Cola returned to India.

COCA COLA AD: Always the real thing

And purchased some of its wanna be competitors like Thumbs up and Limca for 40 million dollars.
But not Campa Cola. Its popularity just fizzled out.
In 2009 the New York Times went to the Campa Cola factory and found one elderly accountant sitting under a lone flickering bulb scribbling in an old ledger. Even the company directors seemed to have forgotten about him.
Now the cola has been relaunched in three flavours by the Indian company Reliance which hopes older family members will “cherish the nostalgia” while younger ones will love the “crisp refreshing taste.”
What was once packaged as made in India nationalism is being repackaged as nostalgia. New India’s own cool says the new jingle


But what are we nostalgic for? Is it for a time when we craved Coca-Cola but made do with Campa Cola? Or for a time when we still believed that whatever the world produced, cars, appliances or colas, we could cobble together at home when in reality we were begging our American cousins to bring back Toblerone, Kit Kats and Dove soaps ? Or for the days when we swigged colas without worrying about the health effects of sugary drinks?
In 1977 Campa Cola was a substitute for Coca-Cola, not a competitor. Now Campa Cola will have to complete cola-to-cola with Coke and Pepsi.
When Campa-Cola came out with a television ad in 1983 it showed youngsters partying on a boat. As they dived off the boat into the clear blue waters, young India day dreamed about feeling good and having fun with all the rest

CAMPA COLA JINGLE 2: When you’re feeling good and having fun with all the rest”, 

But 99.99% of Indians knew that that life was an unattainable fantasy. But at least they could drink Campa Cola and pretend to that lifestyle just as Campa Cola was pretending to be Coca-Cola.
The other day I finally picked up a Campa Cola for old times sakes. And to be honest it just felt like old fizz in a new bottle. Not the campa cola I remembered. More like just a campy cola
This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW