Christmas, Cocaine and Coca-Cola – an Advertising Study

On Tuesday, I gave the last presentation of my university career. The subject was on the advertising on Coca-Cola, a vast topic. This is a shortened and slightly better written version of the presentation I gave, minus a lot of the theory I had to give, analysis of the hilltop campaign and other political material, with a few choice images (click on the image to go to the host)

Coca-Colonisation – a study of the advertising of Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola do not advertise to sell products. Instead, they are promoting a brand idea, a way of life. The ideology behind their campaigns are shrouded in myth and their success is because people buy into them. People worship the brand like a religion, which allows the company to infiltrate and change our ideas of culture that we hold dear, like Christmas.

The drink was born in 1886 as a medicine, by chemist Dr John Pemberton. Health products were big business at the turn of the 20th Century. In an age where the average lifespan was 45 and people were fascinated by cure-alls,  tonics like Coca-Cola cost very little to produce and could be sold for very high mark ups. They were also some of the first products advertised, often featuring hard-selling copy.

Coke is mainly carbonated water and sugar. 10% of the drink consists of of a secret formula of oils and plant extracts. One of the most controversial of these ingredients is extracts from the Coca leaf, extracts of which are also used to make Cocaine. Called the divine plant by the Inca tribe in Puru, many doctors were experimenting with its ‘cure-all’ qualities; Pemberton himself used it as a substitute against his own Morphine addiction. The drink did contain extracts of Cocaine, but after a scandal in the early 1900’s about the drug, the Cocaine particles are now removed from the leaf. The Cola in the name comes from the extracts from the Kola nut, imported from Africa with a high Caffeine content. This mix is what gives the drink its addictive quality.

The creation name & logo is attributed to John Pemberton’s partner and bookkeeper, Frank Mason Robinson, in 1885. The typeface used, known as Spencerian script, was the dominant style of formal handwriting in the United States during the 19th Century. Reflecting the colour scheme of the American flag, the  red and white of the Coca-Cola logo was kept simple and distinctive to lure young minds, with the two C’s giving the name an alliterative and memorable ring. The company want to portray a clean-cut image, symbolising the hopes and dreams of the American people.

What is most interesting about the Coca-Cola advertising model is that until the last decade, all advertisements were created by McKann-Erikson in Atlanta for global distribution. The advertising  reflects the ideals of the American way of life, promoting the American it to others. Daniel Miller in his essay ‘Coke – The sweet black drink from Trinidad’, talks about  meta symbols in the way an empty symbol is appropriated by someone else and used to fit their needs, like the swastika. When it comes to Coca-Cola however, he says they are more a meta-commodity, in the way the brand’s advertising is changed locally to suit the needs of the company. Locality is important when thinking about advertising, as different markets have different perceptions and customs. If the ads were to be shown in Muslim countries, they would simply re-shoot the ads with different models wearing more clothes.

The company has a jingle that can be cleverly applied to any campaign music and created a range of slogans that have changed as the company have strengthened their brand identity, including  ‘the pause that refreshes’  from 1929 to 1960 and ‘it’s the real thing in the 70’s. All of these phrases follow an old advertising proverb, ‘sell the sizzle, not the steak’, where the language used manages to say absolutely nothing factual about the product, yet tells us everything we want to know about the sensations and joy drinking the product will give us.

A notion that in a post-modernist society we have fallen out of love with religion and have instead started to worship secular objects. The spectacles that we worship now come from the spectacle of the commodity. To quote Guy Debord: “When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real things – dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behaviour.” These ideas can be seen in the design of the bottle as an icon or an idol. The glass bottle was first sold in 1894, but it didn’t get its famous curvy figure until 1915. The first sold in cans in 1955 and are our main drink vessel today, but it’s always the glass bottle that is always used in advertising. We assume that coke tastes better out of glass bottles and have now become so rare that if we see served in a glass bottle we become nostalgic. Even statues and landmarks are made in the image of a glass bottle, which fly high into the sky and sits in the clouds like god would do. Even the formula to the product held like a holy grail.

Not quite sure about all this religious iconography? Look no further than the ‘New Coke’ scandal in 1985. Reacting to Pepsi’s market share edging above Coke’s, the company decided to change the drinks formula in the response to market research that the younger generation wanted a sweeter flavour. When ‘New Coke’ was rolled out there was a national outcry and people complained in their thousands. Some of the Bosses monitoring the phone lines commented on how people were acting like the company had killed God.

“Would it be right to rewrite the Constitution? The Bible? To me, changing the Coke formula is of such a serious nature”

“There are only two things in my life: God and Coca-Cola. Now you have taken one of them away from me.”

It turned out that in Coca-Cola’s efforts to try and appease the new younger generation, they were forgetting about the old die-hard fans of the drink. People had built up a relationship with the brand and related to it in a personable way – the same as the Marxist process of reification – the idea had turned into a thing to the point that it had an almost human quality, or maybe an immortal quality. Thus when the company brought back the old flavour, its return was dubbed as ‘the second coming’ like the brand had been resurrected.

It is a popular belief today that Coca-Cola appropriated the image of Santa Claus that we all know and love today: the round happy man dressed in the corporate colours of the company. However this is not strictly true. While Coca-Cola first used the image of Santa in 1931 in their advertising designed by Haddon Sandbloom, the idea of a present giving jolly old man was already circulating in the media. Santa Claus is modelled on European St Nicholas who had a reputation for secret gift giving, as well as other various incarnations, but was mostly tall, gaunt and dressed in green. These ideas primarily were spread to America by the Dutch, who had a bishop called Sante Klaas and image was transcribed literary in the poem ‘Twas the night before Christmas’.

Visually, the first image of Santa is attributed to Thomas Nast who drew an image of Santa Claus for Harper’s Illustrated weekly, which is based on the descriptions in the poem. In some images the suit would be red, but not the bright red we associate with Coca-Cola.

After the Stock Crash of 1929 Coca-Cola had to think of new ways to advertise through the depression. The winter months are not the best selling times for carbonated drinks. Coca-Cola knew that the only way to keep the brand going through time would be to catch the next generation while they were still young. There was a taboo on directly targeting young children and the negative health benefits associated with the drink meant that they were unable to illustrate children drinking the drink. The way around this was to subconsciously tap into the idea of Santa, the bringer of good tidings, joy, and most importantly presents, drinking a cola as he travelled around the world. This happy jolly and fat image assimilated the capitalist ideals of consumption and so the subconscious association of Coke and Christmas began. Coca-Cola is proud of the fact that they have modified our perception of Santa as we know it, as they included are large collection of their Santa memorabilia in an exhibition in the 1996 Louvre called ‘Advertising as Art’.

For more information about the history of Coca-Cola, I can not recommend enough ‘For God Country and Coca-Cola.’ By Mark Pendergrast – who discovered the religous themes when researching for the book.


One thought on “Christmas, Cocaine and Coca-Cola – an Advertising Study

  1. Nice history of the Coca-Cola brand. I would argue that 99% of companies advertise their brand as way of life in order to sell their products though. Most sports brands have been doing this for years. Nike is a prime example, and have now moved away from more traditional brand promoting methods altogether, and now create their own sporting events such as marathons, or sponsor top musicians to create albums for people to exercise to in order to make the Nike part or peoples everyday lives. O2 and Carling are the same, buying out clubs and bars and placing their brand over every tap, wall and stage so the public associate their brand with ‘cool’ bands and good times. Bisto is an older example of a brand selling its product through a way of life. Families sat around the table enjoying the product like a Sunday roast wouldn’t be a Sunday roast with the mmm… Bisto gravy granules. Maybe Coca-Cola was one of the first brands to do this, they certainly have been around long enough.

    I wonder if I’m a good boy this year Santa would be kind enough to place in my stocking some of those Cocaine toothache drops… maybe he keeps them for Rudolf, would explain his red nose.

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