Bizarre turn in cola wars

Don't you just hate it when you think you are about to sell Coca-Cola secrets to Pepsi for about a gazillion-and-a-half dollars and you wind up being arrested by the FBI?

That's exactly what happened this week to poor old Joya Williams.

Talk about having a bad week! One minute you are working as an administrative assistant at one of the most successful companies in the history of money-making, and the next minute you are shuffling before a judge in a faded red T-shirt that Dr. Pepper wouldn't claim, accused of selling trade secrets to the enemy.

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and this week's Cola-gate incident reads like a script from a made-for-television movie.

Here's what allegedly happened. Don't you just love that word - allegedly?

According to published reports and court records, Williams, who is 41 and old enough to have known better, was working in cahoots with co-conspirators. "Cahoots" is another good word, and one you don't hear too often anymore.

Anyway, old Joya and these other two guys - one was from New York and the other from Decatur - supposedly contacted Pepsi Cola here awhile back (which is Southern-speak for "I'm not sure exactly when it was") and offered to sell information about new Coke products and marketing plans.

Now, everyone knows that the formula for Coca-Cola is one of the best-kept secrets in the world. You are more likely to find out where Elvis is hiding, where Jimmy Hoffa is buried or what Ted Kennedy did after driving Mary Jo Kopechnie off that bridge than you are to learn what makes the Real Thing so real.

Some folks insist the formula is in the vault in the Trust Company of Georgia bank, but I suspect it is somewhere a lot more secure than that. I bet it's buried deep within the confines of Fort Knox, along with what is left of the nation's gold.

At any rate, Coke executives insist that Williams didn't have access to the secret formula, but that she certainly was privy to a lot of other information that the company didn't want Britney Spears running around with. (Does she still sell Pepsi or is she too busy banging her kid's head around on her car door?)

The Pepsi officials who were contacted by Williams' accomplices did the honorable thing and contacted the authorities, of course, and an elaborate sting operation was set in motion.

The ultimate result was that Joya Williams exchanged an Armani bag containing undisclosed documents and perhaps a sample or two of product, for a Girl Scout cookie box full of cash.

The FBI put the payout in a Girl Scout cookie box, y'all. Somebody over at the bureau really does have a sense of humor. Imagine that.

The bottom line, of course, is that all three alleged perpetrators have been arrested. Joya Williams is out on bond and her partners (are we supposed to say "alleged" again?) are still in the slammer - at least they were as of this writing - and the secrets of the Coca-Cola Co. are safe.

But don't you wish you knew what those secrets were? I mean, really?

Coca-Cola is an industry giant, and the company's marketing genius is legendary. We have always been a Coke family, and I still remember stories my daddy used to tell me about how the company grew from humble beginnings.

He told me one story about the powers-that-be wanting a bottle that was so distinctive that if someone found the smallest shard of broken glass, anywhere in the world, they would recognize it immediately as a Coca-Cola bottle.

Witness the green contoured "Mae West" bottle.

He also told me Coke had a goal of covering the country with its distinctive red-swirled signs, so that you could drive anywhere in America and never be out of sight of a Coke sign. I don't know if they met that goal, but look around you. They didn't miss it by far.

Of course, every idea to come out of the Atlanta headquarters has not been solid gold. Who can forget the New Coke fiasco? I bet the guy who came up with that idea is selling Nu-Grape to gorillas in the jungles of Uganda.

Williams may or may not have put a new product sample in that Armani bag. I bet she did. I bet it was a bottled Coke with peanuts already included.

Wouldn't that be a grand idea? No muss, no fuss, no more cupping your hand around the bottle's mouth or spilling precious goobers on the floor of the fruit stand. Just pop the top and enjoy the ice cold, slightly salty sensation that only comes from that specific combination of culinary treats.

And I bet she had information about the next ad campaign - maybe even the name of the person being considered as the next Coke pitchman. Maybe they plan to bring Elvis out of hiding - or maybe they plan to hire Ted Kennedy. If they did that, they would have to start bottling Coke in fifths instead of liters.

We may never know what the secrets were - or we may have to wait until the made-for-television movie. Maybe they'll get Cynthia McKinney to play the part of Joya Williams. If we are lucky, she will be looking for a new job by then.

Darrell Huckaby is an author and high school history teacher who lives in Rockdale County. Visit his Web site at www.darrellhuckaby.net. His column appears on Saturday.