From Coca Cola to Israel Electric: What Promotional Factory Tours Really Cost Us

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A visitor center of Israel Electric.
A visitor center of Israel Electric.Credit: Yossi Weiss

A few minutes into Coca-Cola’s “sensation center,” and all of our senses are fogged over. The dimmed lighting, red walls and colorful pictures of “the world’s most popular beverage,” as the energetic guide said ad infinitum, draw the visitors into a bubbly, intoxicating experience in which they shed even the remotest possibility of critical thought.

Our journey begins in a facility that looks like the inside of a soda can, and takes us to a re-enactment of the bar in which Dr. John Pemberton devised the secret formula for cola 133 years ago. From there we move over to an interactive center featuring trivia questions about “the world’s most popular beverage.”

And then finally the high point arrives: A film that beguiles the senses is screened in a small hall with a comfy red (but of course) couch. The couch slowly gyrates in sync with the film, water is sprayed on the spectators who are half seated, half lying down and are looking upward at the screen. At first glance, it seemed like we’d gained refuge from the well-oiled Coca-Cola PR machine. The film refers to the senses: seeing, hearing, tasting. But eventually the punch line is delivered, and each of these senses is enlisted for the purpose of glorifying the popular beverage that offers a response to them all.

From there, we move to the “bubble palace.” There we are given 3-D glasses and enter a “bubble,” a swing that rises and falls inside a dark chamber across from an amusing film. In the background are the rustling sounds of bubbles, which are meant to create a sensation that we ourselves are inside the cola.

The Coca Cola facilities in Bnei Brak, Israel.Credit: Nir Keidar

At the end of the tour, we arrive at the production line and receive a brief explanation of the process from the guide. Her words are swallowed up by the noise and tumult, so our sole opportunity to pick up a little concrete information about the famous beverage is lost. At the tour’s end – how could it be otherwise? – the visitors arrive at a huge refrigerator where they can choose a beverage (for another 5 shekels, they get a can with their name printed on it).

When the hour-and-a-half tour is done, the children have only one desire: to taste the favorite beverage, the taste of life, the secret formula known to only three people in the world.

And what about health? “This is an experiential center,” the guide responds when asked about that issue. “We’ve come to experience and to enjoy.” In other words, leave me alone with depressing topics like acids and sugar – this is not the time or the place.

Coca-Cola invested two million shekels ($568,000) in its visitor center, which is located at the company factory in Bnei Brak. The center, which measures 650 square meters, was opened in 2006. Construction continued for two years, and was planned in conjunction with Orpan Group, a company that specializes in building visitor centers.

The Coca-Cola visitor center is one of the star performers in a long list of centers of this sort, which attract tens of thousands of parents and children annually. There they are exposed to unregulated and unadulterated marketing. The temptation is clear: While entry to attractions like swimming pools, museums and amusement parks costs between 80 and 100 shekels per child, at the visitor centers you get a 90-minute activity for free, or no more than 20 shekels. During the hot summer months, when school vacation seems to have no end, and parents’ wallets are emptying, these centers become highly attractive.

A visitor center of Strauss-Elite.Credit: Ron Plotnicki

“Friends of ours recommended this center,” relates one mother with four children in tow. “We have two whole months of summer vacation and we are searching for things to do, in air-conditioned venues and at a reasonable cost. Coca-Cola provided it, and we even enjoyed ourselves.”

And what about the marketing content to which you are exposed?

“They are exposed to ads all the time on YouTube, and I have no control over that. So this is just another ad.”

Conversations with parents reveal that as far as they’re concerned, it is a legitimate transaction: For a nominal sum, they get a babysitter with AC, the kids are engaged, receive a few sweets and a bit of interesting information. In return, they permit their children to be exposed to advertising. “It is a price I am willing to pay,” says a mother of three boys, aged 8 to 12.

“The visitor centers forge an emotional connection between company and consumer,” says Avi Zeitan, an expert in marketing and strategy.

“The parent brings the entire family for a fun experience, and in this way the company succeeds in speaking with the future generation and imprinting its products and brands. This is an experience that cannot be created through any article or other means of publicity – and that’s why it exists.”

Journey of a Milky

Executives at the food conglomerate Strauss understood the immense potential of bringing the customers to the factories, providing tasting opportunities and explaining from a non-critical perspective how Milky, Achla hummus, Yotvata chocolate milk and Pesek Zman chocolate bars make their way to homes.

The conglomerate operates four visitor centers: Elite chocolate and candy in Upper Nazareth, milk products in Achihud, Achla salads in Carmiel and Yotvata milk products at Kibbutz Yotvata. A tour at each of these centers costs 18 shekels per person. A company spokesman claims that this is not a source of income but a service to the consumer at a token charge. However, a modest calculation of the number of participants taking tours suggests an annual revenue of about 2.5 million shekels for Strauss.

Plastic Coca Cola bottles on the production line at a Coca Cola factory in Nairobi, Kenya, June 7, 2018. Credit: Baz Ratner/REUTERS

The factory in Achihud was built in 2001 after the closure of the old factory in Nahariya. During the tour, which lasts two hours, the team spirit and pride of the factory is emphasized, and from the start the audience is told about the Strauss family, which fled Nazi terror, settled in Nahariya and began its story with two cows, eventually becoming the huge company it is now.

The guide initiates a conversation with the audience, asking about the Strauss brands with which they are familiar. Names like Milky, Cottage and Splendid are cited. The guide names a few other company brands and tucks in some information about other visitor centers of the company, all the while peppering us with details about the Bazooka bubble-gum machine that is 70 years old, which can be found in the factory in Upper Nazareth, and the hummus-making workshop in the factory in Carmiel, in what seems very much like a promo for the other visitor centers.

Then comes a short interactive film that describes the beginnings of the factory and of Hilda Strauss, who concocted the puddings in her own kitchen. The words are repeated over and over, so that the message hits home: Strauss is quality of life, pleasure, health and social responsibility.

The guide wished to emphasize the final message in the film: “It is possible to realize such dreams, starting from a couple of cows owned by a family.” Questions about the amounts of sugar and fat in products did not come up, nor was there any discussion of the differentials in costs of dairy products between Israel and the rest of the world. Not long ago, Strauss estimated that 70 percent of the candy it manufactures would warrant being marked with a red danger symbol due to excessive sugar, fat or sodium, in comparison with amounts recommended by the Health Ministry.

The Nesher plant in Ramla.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The second part of the tour was the most enjoyable of all for kids. Participants enter a large room and sit down in front of a conveyor belt filled with all of the finest of the company’s puddings. A moment before the conveyor belt begins to move, there’s another trivia game with a bit of PR about milk, probiotics and quality of life – and then, yalla, let’s eat.

The participants are invited to help themselves to items on the conveyor belt, but are asked not to hoard anything. Disposable hats and aprons are distributed for the visit through the factory, which is meant for ages six and up. The visitors get to see the Milky production line (9,000,000 units every month), observe how the packaging is built and learn that laboratory tests are conducted each day, resulting in the discarding of a significant portion of the products.

Aroma of chocolate

The visit to the Elite candy factory starts with a conversation with the guide who asks the children what they think is made at the factory. The youngsters offer up names of candies, the guide confirms them, but then goes on to mention that various products of Strauss that are manufactured elsewhere in Israel, evidently so that the children can start nudging their parents, the consumers who will be paying.

Following the mention of several of the Elite brands, there is a short film. Anyone who’s visited the Strauss factory in Achihud will be disappointed: The film provides minimal background information on the annals of Elite history, starting with its establishment by Eliyahu Fromenchenko in Ramat Gan in 1933.

A Strauss milk products visitor center.Credit: Sivan Faraj

The film, which mainly relates to the company’s brands, does mention that Elite was purchased in 1997 by Strauss and that the factory was moved to Upper Nazareth. Other information that might have interested the children, such as the raw materials that go into the chocolate and other sweets, was left on the editing room floor.

The guide then begins a conversation with the participants about the company’s brands and how they got their names. A short film with outstanding production values is shown, with many more details than the first one; it is aimed at children and adults alike. It details the five stages that every new product undergoes until its arrival on the shelf.

As opposed to the factory in Achihud, in which scant time is devoted to a factory tour, Elite puts emphasis on the experiential portion. At the visitor center they know that no film can trump the sense of taste, and therefore, after the distribution of safety instructions and the request not to touch the production lines, participants enter the factory and encounter the aroma of sweet chocolate.

The participants come to the section where the chewing gum is produced, and it is hard not to be impressed by the whizzing production lines, on which little hills of gumballs are speedily weighed and packaged. A few steps away, the odor shifts, and now suggests a bakery, in which the honey and petit beurre flavored cakes are produced.

The final stage of the tour is the moment for which everyone’s been waiting – the chocolate production lines. There, too, the aroma does the job, and makes it hard to resist the temptation of chocolate bars making their way through the colossal factory. At this point, the children can barely restrain themselves, and the participants rush into a room where they are offered candy – without limitations – but with a request that we eat in moderation and not fill our pockets. We are reassured that every participant will receive a bag of chocolate to take home.

A visitor center of Israel Electric.Credit: Yossi Weiss

It isn’t only corporations that sell their wares to the public at large, such as Strauss and Coca-Cola, who have been opening well-appointed visitor centers. It is also companies, to be specific, monopolies hat are interested in currying favor with the local audience, and maybe even accruing some positive public opinion in advance of increased competition.

Cementing their reputation

This roster includes the visitor center of the Nesher cement plant in Ramle, which has been in operation for 19 years. Nesher, which manufactures cement, is officially defined as a monopoly, although in recent years it has been compelled to give up its plant in Hartuv, and to compete with imported concrete, mainly from Turkey and Greece, but also from Jordan and Cyprus, which gives them “lots of trouble,” as company officials admit, such as products that they claim are imported at dumped prices (lower than in the exporting country).

As the Nesher website says, the company’s visitor center hosts “groups of pupils, retirees, soldiers, university students, professionals, families, residents of the area, tourists, etc. The visitors arrive every day of the week, and receive educational guidance from an experienced team of guides composed of employees and pensioners of the Nesher company, about Nesher activities, cement and its uses, and the cement market in Israel, among others.” A visit to the factory lasts two hours and is free.

The entrance to the center is much less glamorous than that of Coca-Cola or Elite, and as opposed to other centers, no refreshments are offered. Upon arrival, visitors are asked to board an air-conditioned bus for a tour of the factory complex. Our guide, a veteran employee of the company who served as a technician until he was injured and then underwent professional retraining, explains how cement is made. As we drive, he reiterates the explanation: quarrying of the stone, crushing, preliminary heating of the material and then burning in the huge kiln at a temperature of 1,600 degrees, all while maintaining environmental quality at the most stringent standards, he says.

A visitor center of Strauss-Elite.Credit: Ron Plotnicki

And then we arrive at one of the high points of the tour – the Nesher quarry from which the stone is quarried, a huge wound in the heart of Israel, southeast of Haifa. “Although it is a large wound,” the guide confesses, “we transfer money to a fund for the reclamation of quarries, following the completion of work.” The work, he admits, will only end in another 30 years or so, a century after it began.

Following the half-hour tour, we arrive at the visitor center to watch a film, which again speaks about the process of producing cement. It emphasizes the importance of blue-and-white manufacturing, and reiterates the fact that the factory does not cause any pollution.

Visit to a monopoly

Even a government-held electricity monopoly, the Israel Electric Corporation, finds it important for us to be familiar with its positive aspects. Which is why they established (with public funds) an innovative visitor center at the Orot Rabin power station in Hadera, which offers free tours. It is very difficult to find space on tours during summer.

The center opened less than a year ago, which qualifies it as Israel’s newest visitor center. Despite of an investment of some 8 million shekels ($2.2 million), Israel Electric did not think to include any interactive experience, and makes do with a unilateral transfer of information – and lots of it. Although the center offers IMAX-style films and a 360-degree experience, much of the immense amount of information presented is irrelevant to children.

The visit begins with a short film on the history of electricity, and offers a glimpse into the worlds of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Pinhas Rutenberg, the man who brought electricity to Israel. You then watch a short film on electricity (which is termed “a natural phenomenon”), on raw materials for electricity production, such as coal, natural gas, solar energy and wind energy – and it is made clear that the latter two sources are not always available.

A visitor center of Strauss-Elite.Credit: Ron Plotnicki

The guide notes that natural gas exists in Israel and that 70 percent of the electricity in Israel is based on gas from the Tamar reserve, under the sea off the Haifa coastline. “If there were a glitch in the Tamar reserve, we would have a big problem, and therefore the IEC does not put all of its eggs in one basket. The second option for electricity production is coal,” notes the guide.

The short films are highly informative and explain how electricity is produced, starting with the dynamo and ending with the generator, and how the turbine works. The guide explains that the electricity network is spread throughout the country, but notes that Israel has no backup system in place for electricity. “We have relations with Egypt and Jordan, but we are not hooked up to them by power grids,” she says. “And even if we wanted to make use of them, the amount of electricity that Jordan, for instance, produces countrywide is equivalent to what we generate here at the Rabin station alone. The solution to this problem, she states, is independent energy supply by connecting all power stations in Israel with one another.

We then move to another auditorium to watch another short film, this one a feature film that describes the break-in of hackers from North Korea and Iran into Israel’s electricity generating system. The on-screen events and accompanying music creates real drama, to the point that it seems as if any moment darkness will settle over all Israel. Of course, at the last moment the gallant employees of IEC succeed not only in thwarting the attack but even in redirecting it against the attackers.

From there, the film shifts to history and information about the delivery of electricity to the Israeli consumer, and the 12,000 workers who make this possible. The film refers to the 8 billion shekels that were invested in reducing the emission of pollutants from the chimneys of the power station, but does not mention that the project ran past schedule, with a budgetary overrun that is liable to be covered by the public to the tune of an additional 1.6 billion shekels. Nor are we told that some of the chimneys were not in fact needed. Instead, it is explained that the company is active in the community and offers educational programs.

Similarly, the controversial corporate restructuring that was approved in 2018 is referred to in the film, but without mentioning that it will require the transfer of billions of shekels from the pockets of the electricity-consuming public, in order to underwrite pension and other financial benefits for the company employees at a time when the IEC’s monopolistic hold on the Israeli economy will grow even stronger.

The last part of the tour includes a bus ride around the complex, during which the guide explains mainly about the coal that is stockpiled at the power station and how it makes its way to Israel. She stresses that the gases that exit the chimneys are emitted at a height of approximately 200 meters, and that these chimneys are expected to be closed in the framework of the electricity reform, thus helping protect the environment.

This is also how the guide justifies the construction of the fourth chimney, erected over the past few years at a cost of billions of shekels. A debate develops on the subject of the coal ash, which is hard not to see on the tour. The guide contends that it is collected and transferred for reuse to factories such as Nesher for the production of cement. But she does not address the fact that the ash is piled up and spread throughout the compound and is therefore liable to scatter into the air at any moment.

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