A billboard just outside of Austin, Texas bears the image of a silhouetted Coca-Cola bottle on its side with the caption: "Quick. Name a soft drink." The image reveals the iconic nature of the soft drink that fills the famous contoured bottle. Unmistakably Coca-Cola. Unmistakably American.
In the preface of a special issue of Beverage World magazine commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of Coca-Cola, the author described Coke as "a totally American product born of a solid idea, nurtured throughout the past century with creative thinking and bold decision-making, and always plenty of good old-fashioned hard work. That is as it should be; it is the American way" (Stevens,2). Coca-Cola has become as American as baseball and apple pie. True, Coca-Cola originated in America and stands as a leading American business, but how did it become associated with the "American way?" From the very beginning Coca-Cola advertisements consisted of slice-of-life images showing Americans enjoying a refreshing "pause." They created an ideal America that Americans could visualize. Only after America's entry into World War II did Coca-Cola begin to align itself with patriotic themes. The advertisements created before and during World War II, as well as the activity of the company during the war solidified Coca-Cola in the minds of Americans as an icon of American values and ideals.
Coca-Cola had humble beginnings. Created by pharmacist Dr. John Styth Pemberton in his backyard on May 8, 1886, the concoction of caramel-colored syrup was tested as a soda fountain drink sold for five cents a glass at the largest drug store in Atlanta, Jacob's Pharmacy. His bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, suggested the name Coca-Cola and created the unique cursive logo that has been the trademark ever since. Pemberton planned to add a shot of cold, carbonated water to the syrup mixture. By May 29, 1886 the first Coca-Cola ad appeared in the Atlanta Journal on the patent medicine page:
Coca-Cola. Delicious! Refreshing! Exhilarating! Invigorating! The New and Popular Soda Fountain Drink, containing the properties of the wonderful Coca plant and the famous Cola nuts. For sale by Willis Venable and Nunnally & Rawson. (Allen, 28).
Dr. Pemberton, however, became ill soon after this, threatening the continuation of the business. Sales plummeted throughout the rest of that year, but Robinson's faith in Coca-Cola's potential kept the business going. Robinson concluded that the people simply didn't know what they were missing because it hadn't been advertised.
He was right! By June of 1887 the Coca-Cola trademark had been patented through the U. S. Patent Office and the product was gaining wider distribution. In 1888, Asa G. Candler, an Atlanta businessman and druggist, purchased the rights to the product and later formed the corporation "The Coca-Cola Company." Candler firmly believed in the importance of advertising. He distributed thousands of complimentary tickets for free glasses of Coca-Cola. He also pushed promoting the beverage on outdoor posters, calendars, soda fountain urns, and even wall murals (a precursor to the nationwide use of billboards in 1925). His philosophy was to stimulate the desire for Coca-Cola in as many ways and as much as possible, and then have it readily available everywhere.
Availability increased tremendously upon the advent of bottling in 1894. The company expanded its distribution, and in turn, escalated the importance of advertising. In 1906 the company hired William D'Arcy, who set the tone of Coke's advertising for the coming decades. He held the view that"Coca-Cola advertising should create scenes that drew people in and made them part of the pleasant interludes of everyday life" (Allen,76). He showed pleasant people drinking Coca-Cola while doing sociable activities such as playing games and shopping.
In the 1910s Coca-Cola ran an ad of a demure yet appealing woman drinking a Coke. The copy read: "Nothing is so suggestive of Coca-Cola's own pure deliciousness as the picture of a beautiful, sweet, wholesome, womanly woman." Associating itself with an ideal American girl, Coca-Cola made its appeal to the public. D'Arcy also wrote text for the advertisements that had away of reaching the common reader. He proclaimed, "All classes, ages and sexes drink Coca-Cola" (Allen, 76). One of his first newspaper advertisements showed a picture of the baseball star Ty Cobb at bat and said:
Something's bound to happen--nerves-a-tingle-- head whizzing. Crack!! Good boy Ty!! Safe!! And then you shout yourself hoarse. When it's all over you're hot, thirsty and limp. A cold, snappy drink of Coca-Cola will put you back in the game-relieve the thirst and cool you off. (Allen, 76).
D'Arcy found success. He used a subject that appealed to all Americans: baseball. D'Arcy's description of watching Ty Cobb play baseball affected the reader's senses making him thirsty for a Coca-Cola. He continued to align Coca-Cola with American everyday life.
In the 1920s, Coca-Cola's advertising began to reflect the prosperity of the times. Advertisements depicted the rising middle class participating in activities once reserved for the elite in society. Two well-groomed men sit in a charming American Pullman train car while a black waiter immaculately dressed in white serves them ice-cold Coca-Cola. The ad tells readers to have a cold one "at your club" (Louis, 221). Another advertising poster shows a young girl being pulled on a board behind a boat wearing a subtly bold tank bathing suit. The advertisements created images that the people of America aspired to emulate. And with the great prosperity of the nation, such a dream was within reach.
Unfortunately, the good fortune of America came to a screeching halt upon the stock market crash of 1929. The Great Depression ensued and people of all classes suffered the disastrous economic blow that would last more than ten years. Before the crash occurred in 1929 the famous slogan "The Pause that Refreshes" made its debut in The Saturday Evening Post. The company launched this campaign under the commonly accepted assumption that men and women work better if given a few breaks in their work day. Coca-Cola's per capita consumption doubled that year. But the reality of the depression threatened to decrease sales. It controlled every aspect of American life.
However, the pleasant fantasy land of Coca-Cola advertisements remained untouched. Coca-Cola continued to present happy scenes of "everyday" American life. An ad in the August 3, 1935 issue of the Saturday Evening Post showed a pleasant man probably in his thirties having a Coca-Cola on his way to work to help him "start the morning feeling fit." His immaculate dress suit and gleaming smile deny any existence of a national depression. He holds the morning paper with confidence, as if it contains only good news. He lacks any worries or cares at all. Quite an unrealistic depiction of America at the time, but this scene represented the "real" America to the people. As a population they yearned for a return to this way of life, the way things used to be. Coca-Cola advertisements provided an escape from the realities of the depression into an idealized reality of America. People bought it. It assured them that there would be a return to normalcy.
A parallel image for women is illustrated in the May 31 and August 23, 1941 issues of The Saturday Evening Post. The first image shows a woman leisurely taking a break from her gardening to refresh herself. The copy reads: "There's one thing everybody will grow this month. They'll grow thirsty." The ad puts "everybody" on an equal level, comparing all women to this pretty, clean, well-dressed woman in her blooming prosperous garden. People could be just like her with a leisurely, comfortable life if they pause to refresh with Coca-Cola. Similarly, the bathing beauty in the next image does not have a care in the world. With only the purchase of a Coca-Cola, the reader can be as relaxed and "completely refreshed" as the young vibrant girl.
Artist Haddon Sundblom's famous Santa Claus image first appeared with a Coke on billboards in 1931, reassuring people that goodness still existed in the world. Associating itself with Santa Claus gave Coca-Cola a universal positive image that epitomized American ideals. For Santa brings gifts to all little boys and girls, as long as they are good.
Boys and girls also appeared in soda fountain advertisements. A pristine juvenile couple sits at the counter while a soda jerk takes their order. The girl smiles earnestly at the boy while he orders two ice-cold Coca-Colas for them. The couple, free from any notion of a depression or the oncoming U. S. involvement in a world war, happily sip their Coca-Colas. The advertisement reminds readers that, "Around the corner from anywhere, the soda fountain invites you to pause and refresh yourself. Make it a date." Coke was depicted as a normal convenient part of everyday life, an essential part of the picture perfect America that these advertisements created. One of the advertisements asserts: "The pause that refreshes with ice-cold Coca-Cola is America's favorite moment." And indeed it would be. The beginning of U. S. involvement in World War II sent many American soldiers abroad, where they longed for the comforts of home and "moments" like these.
As one sergeant from Kansas wrote home to his parents during World War II, "It's the little things, not the big things that the individual soldier fights for or wants so badly when away. It's the girl friend back home in a drug store over a Coke, or the juke box and the summer weather. The average soldier wants to come home, get back in those old clothes, and do the things he always did" (Allen, 258). They longed for the familiar, very American, soda fountain experience. What are the other things that Americans "always did?" Just look at the Coca-Cola advertisements. Coca-Cola successfully created a picture of the ideal America that Americans held onto during World War II.
Even though Coca-Cola's images of America were appealing and profitable during the depression, by the mid- thirties an earnest competitor emerged on the market with surprising success: Pepsi. Offering twelve ounces of cola instead of six for the same nickel price, the Pepsi-Cola company made steady gains with consumers. Families who had to watch their spending began to drink Pepsi. From 1934 to 1937 Pepsi netted over $9.5 million. In 1938 they doubled their 1936 profits at $4 million. Wallace Mack, the leader and force behind the Pepsi-Cola company, forged ahead into the newest medium of advertisement, the radio. Pepsi created the first advertising jingle for the radio which with twenty-eight million families listening to radio by 1939 made a substantial difference in their sales.
Pepsi-Cola hits the spot Twelve full ounces, that's a lot Twice as much for a nickel, too Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you. (Allen, 240).
The tune of the jingle was so catchy that listeners called up radio stations asking them to play it. By 1939, net earnings reached $5.6 million for Pepsi-Cola. Coca-Cola, whose appeal had been so dependent on its visual image, had nothing to counter the Pepsi jingle with. By the beginning of 1941, with an advertising budget exceeding $10 million, the company was searching for ways to regain the spotlight.
The history of the world gave Coca-Cola its wish. The onset of World War II had a profound effect on the advertising decisions of the coming years. Ben Oehlert, who handled the lobbying activity in Washington for the company, predicted what the war would do to Coca-Cola and attempted to prepare the company in advance. He knew that the United States would eventually become involved in the international conflict and therefore, the company would face cutbacks and decline in sales. Because Coca-Cola had become the largest consumer of granulated cane sugar in the world by 1919, the rationing of sugar during World War I had almost devastated the company. Oehlert, not wanting this to happen again, pondered how he could convince the government that Coca-Cola was essential to the war effort. Approaching Ralph Hayes, secretary and treasurer of the company, Oehlert presented the idea that even in wartime, men and women benefitted from regular pauses in their work day.
Hayes referred to the project as "Oehlert's Folly," but nevertheless gave careful consideration to the young lawyer's observations. Hayes recognized how Coca-Cola could be valuable to the military population. As an alternative to alcoholic beverages, Coca-Cola would be a more desirable beverage for a commanding officer to give his troops. Therefore, Hayes told the D'Arcy agency to begin collecting endorsements from commanding officers around the country in training camps.
Robert W. Woodruff, President of the company, however, needed to be convinced that Oehlert was onto something worth getting into. Luckily, a wire sent by an American reporter in London to the New York Coca-Cola office came in the spring of 1941 reading: "We, members of the Associated Press, can not get Coca-Cola anymore. Terrible situation for Americans covering battle of Britain. Know you can help. Regards" (Allen, 250). The wire made Woodruff realize that Coca-Cola boosted morale and therefore was crucial to the war effort. He thought that even if the company lost money, Coca-Cola should be available to the armed forces. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Woodruff declared Coca-Cola's wartime policy: "We will see that every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents wherever he is and whatever it costs" (Watters, 162). The Coca-Cola company became a source of surging patriotism.
The War Department agreed with Woodruff's idea that Coca-Cola would provide a boost in morale. Therefore, they had the U. S. government fund the installation of sixty-four bottling plants behind Allied lines. Entire bottling plants were shipped to the front lines with other supplies. And as soon as the battle front moved, so would the bottling company. When America went to war, Coca-Cola followed.
At the start of the U. S. involvement in the war, Coca- Cola knew it needed to adjust its advertising. Coca-Cola attempted to create the same American images, but under in a wartime context. The February 21, 1942 issue of The Saturday Evening Post replaced the young couple sitting at the soda fountain with two smiling soldiers. The happy, no worries lifestyle image prevailed. The ad appears tidy, neat, in order, and under control. As long as there was Coca-Cola, everything was fine. The soda fountain scenario was making its appearance once again, but this time it had been adapted to a nation at war. For example, a professional female soda jerk stands behind the counter representative of females in the work place during wartime.
In 1943, Coca-Cola put out an advertisement urging people to buy U. S. War Bonds and War Stamps. The newly created elf-looking Coca-Cola mascot named "Sprite" appears in the ad stating, "I'm saying this for Uncle Sam!" and warning "And no matter what anybody is doing to help (this doesn't go for fighting men) nobody is doing his full share if he's not buying U. S. War Bonds and War Stamps regularly. Are you buying them? Are you buying your share in Victory and in the good American way of Life?" Coca-Cola strongly aligned itself with the war effort. In another wartime advertisement Coca-Cola shows three major wars in American history: the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. The caption next to the Civil War picture reads: "Stonewall Jackson taught us what the pause that refreshes really means.... On the march he gave his men rations of sugar and at intervals required them to lie down for a short rest. Thus he marched troops farther and faster than any other general in the field. Since his day all marching troops have been given a short rest period out of every hour." The ad reconstructs history by asserting that even Stonewall Jackson understood the need to "pause and refresh" oneself. Therefore, the ad suggests that Stonewall would have had a Coca-Cola and supported its importance to the wartime effort. The other two pictures of soldiers reveal Coca-Cola's patriotic role in American war history.
By 1944, Coca-Cola became known as "The Global High Sign." This ad campaign showed men in uniform together enjoying Coca-Colas. The advertisements reinterpreted friendship and community. One early ad shows a group of young boys drinking Coke while sticking their feet in a fountain, whereas one of the wartime images shows GIs with a crate of Coca-Cola in a foxhole. Coca- Cola had reconstructed the American community because it aimed not only to fit the changing times, but also to continue representing American values and ideals. Another ad in the September 16, 1944 issue of The Saturday Evening Post has two women Allies enjoying "a friendly pause" together. The scene resembles an ad created four years earlier where two women enjoy a Coca-Cola while taking a break from their shopping. The women in the earlier image focus on the Fashion News section of a newspaper, while the women in the wartime image gaze at a wallet-size photo of a soldier. The copy reads: "There's a friendly phrase that speaks the allied language. It's Have a "Coke." Friendliness enters the picture when ice-cold Coca-Cola appears. Over tinkling glasses of ice-cold "Coke," minds meet and hearts are closer together. It's a happy custom that's spreading 'round the globe." The friendship, though the same, has been adapted to the times. The wartime ad aligned Coca-Cola with the American ideal of good will. Coca-Cola helped create and maintain good relations among the allied forces. Where would they have been without it? All of the advertisements associated with the war sent a similar message to the reader: "Coca-Cola is an essential part of America's war effort. If you don't drink it, you're not American."
Other soft drink advertisements of the day chose less patriotic approaches to advertising. Neither of the advertisements shown present their product as a patriotic product like Coca-Cola does. Therefore, Coke stands high above the rest as a symbol of America.
This high status did not come without a cost. Coca-Cola borrowed $5.5 million in order to place more than 64 bottling operations in foreign countries during the war. But the risk they took paid off. More than 11 million veterans returned home with a "lifelong attachment" to Coca-Cola. They had paused to refresh themselves more than a billion times during the war (Allen, 265). In an American Legion magazine survey of GIs, more of them preferred Coke over Pepsi by a factor of more than 8 to 1. Therefore, in the following years Coca-Cola capitalized on its position in the American heart and mind. In 1950, a Time magazine article proved that Coca-Cola was still a quintessential American icon. The cover showed an image entitled "World & Friend" with the subtitle "Love that piaster, that lira, that tickey, and that American way of life." The smiling red Coca-Cola disk happily serves the world a Coke, or more accurately, a dose of the American way of life. The article described Coca-Cola's international endeavors as a "peaceful near-conquest of the world" and as "one of the remarkable phenomena of the age" (Beverage World, 168). It also praised Coca-Cola's efforts to ship overseas the American way of life. Apparently, to the author of the article, as well as to the American readers, Coca-Cola and the American way go hand-in-hand. The Coca-Cola disk holds the world in his hands, just as America did at that time after emerging as the leading world power after World War II.
Competitors cringed at Coke's association with the American way, a reality that was being splashed across every newsstand and coffee table in the country. Pepsi complained of unfair treatment, accusing Time of doing the story because Coke advertised in the magazine. Upset, Pepsi Export's newsletter, the Bulletin, reprinted a comment written in Walter Winchell's column: "Time mag usually pummels its Front Cover subject. But Coca-Cola is given the Kid Glove Treatment. Moral: It Pays to Advertise" (Allen, 278).Even though other soft drink companies believed that Time was showing favoritism, the message of the article rang true. Coca-Cola had established itself as a symbol of America at home and abroad. The advertising strategies and techniques used before and during the war contributed extensively to this success. The images created during the war reenforced the images before the war and vice versa. The interactive nature of the two periods of Coca-Cola advertising history made it possible for Coca-Cola to become the American icon that it is today.