It's More Than Pepsi's Challenge

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One hot day this summer, you’re going to be working in the yard, messing around in the garage, or just sitting in the sun and you’re going to be thirsty.

Really thirsty.

And right about that time, you’ll be looking for a can of something icy.  Imagine the condensation wetting your palm as you hear the “pssshhhhhhht� of the top popping. What will you be drinking?

In “The Real Pepsi Challenge� by Stephanie Capparell, you’ll see that the color of your skin might’ve influenced your choice of beverage 60 years ago.  That’s because the Cola Wars were fought not just over soda then, but over African American dollars and access to high-level jobs.

It all started in the late 1930s when a Chicago investment firm employee was named president of Pepsi-Cola following a lawsuit and a minor scandal.  By early 1939, that employee, Walter Mack, was named sole head of Pepsi. 

Mack, a boisterous, think-outside-the-box wanna-be politician and businessman, saw great potential in the soft-drink industry.  He decided to go head-to-head with Coke, the then-number-one cola in America, by tapping into a hidden-in-plain-sight African American market, to which few businesses catered. 

To capture those potential customers, Mack did something that was nearly unheard-of in post-Depression-era Corporate America: he hired an African American man whose job was to sell Pepsi to businesses that catered to African Americans.

Though job opportunities were limited, African Americans were a powerful economic force to be reckoned with, particularly when it came to consumer products.  Advertisers didn’t often target African American buyers specifically, but their ads were seen by African Americans who bought things for themselves or made purchasing decisions on behalf of their employers. 

Mack realized that, and decided to take the (Pepsi) challenge.  By the 1950s, his team of African American salesmen had not only begun to force most major U.S. businesses to diversify their hiring practices, but they had also changed the way marketers created and placed their advertising.

Part business narrative, part biography, and part history, “The Real Pepsi Challenge� is a highly detailed story of one man’s determination to insert equality into American business, and the ground-breaking men and women who helped make it happen.  To put this into perspective, this was a time when the hiring of one Black man in Corporate America was headline-making news in the many of the African American newspapers of the day.  

Author Stephanie Capparell puts a little fizz into the life stories of the influential salespeople who faced discrimination and bucked Jim Crow laws to grow the Pepsi name, customer-by-customer, in areas beset by racism.  She also writes with a neutral eye on Walter Mack, relating stories of his visionary ideas as well as his darker sides.  He was, it was said, not only interested in diversity.  Walter Mack wanted to make a buck.

If you’re interested in business history or diversity in the workplace then or now, grab a bottle of something cold, settle in, and slurp this book up.  “The Real Pepsi Challenge� definitely hits the spot.


Schlichenmeyer is The Black Star News's book reviewer

Book Details: “The Real Pepsi Challenge� by Stephanie Capparell. c.2007, Wall Street Journal Books. $25.00 / $32.00 Canada 349 pages

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