Coca Cola’s Commodity Culture and Advertising

The Coca-Cola Company is a popular commodity. It is the world’s largest beverage corporation, encompassing 13 brands, sold to over 200 countries worldwide with consumers drinking 1.5 billion servings a day of their various products such as Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite, Powerdade and so forth. Coke would cross the line between consumer product and object of desire around the world. It would become imprinted upon cultures everywhere, appearing in movies, in literature, in paintings and in the lyrics of songs as Hays recalls:

Well before the Coca-Cola Company marked its one hundredth anniversary, all kinds of people could see that Coca-Col possessed an image that exceeded the sum of its parts. It was Marilyn Monroe and the Statue of Liberty in a single package, tantalizing and familiar all at once, the world’s best-known brand.’

Coca-Cola’s creator, John Pemberton originally sold the drink as a medicine to replace his French Wine Coca after prohibition legislation made it illegal to sell alcohol.

Originally Coke was sold exclusively in pharmacies, as it was widely believed that carbonated soda was good for people’s health, and Pemberton ran the first advertisement for Coca-Cola in the Atlanta Journal. He claimed that it cured headaches, impotence and indigestion. At the time the use-value for Coca-Cola was only five cents, in other words the price which society deemed Coke to be worth as a patent medicine. However, products with a specific use-value can indeed have a different use to the one intended; an example of this is baseball bats being used as protection against intruders. Coca-Cola, therefore, became a popular soft drink after being first advertised as a medicine.

Today, the exchange-value on Coca-Cola is how it is valued in accordance to the production costs, literally the value added to Coke in order to make a significant profit after its production. It is estimated that Coca-Cola costs around 12 pence to produce a six-pack of cans before shipping, while Tesco sells this product for roughly £2.50. In other words, exchange-value has less to do with costs of a product and more to do with what a society, or culture, agrees that a product is worth.

By 1988 the Company was established as the Coca Cola Company and by its 50th anniversary it was an American national icon. This may indeed be because according to the sign-value, meaning that it is the image of the product that is central in the sale of the commodity and not the object itself. Therefore, merchandise no longer retains value based on its function; on the contrary, its significance is instead determined by the image the audience think they’re buying. Case in point, the rise of the logo means that people are not buying a product itself, but the logo that appears on it, as Mark Pendergrast notes:

‘Coke men themselves have always insisted that the soft drink is just a “small pleasure”, one that people could certainly live without if absolutely necessary. “No one thinks the world will shift on its axis if Coca-Cola ceased to exist.”’

Coca-Cola’s chief goal was to ensure that everyone in the world drank their product as their preferred beverage. This was achieved through their logo and advertising. The famous Coca-Cola logo was in fact created by Pemberton’s bookkeeper, Frank Mason Robinson, who used the leading type of formal handwriting in the United States during the 19th century (Spencerian script) to appeal to consumers. Robinson would later suggest such promotions as giving away free drink coupons and plastering areas with advertisements. These ideas are still very much present today in the Coca-Cola Companies marketing strategies.

Coca-Cola’s advertising has had a significant impact on American culture. For instance, the company is frequently accredited with the creation of the modern image of Father Christmas through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him being an old man in red-and-white garments. It was often suggested that Coca-Cola’s ‘Santa Claus’ was red and white as they were the brands colours, in stark contrast to the colour green in which St Nicholas had been typically associated with in previous generations.

The company continued their trend of Christmas advertisements over the coming years with their ‘Holidays are coming!’ advertisement featuring a convoy of red delivery trucks, plastered with the Coca-Cola brand, driving throughout a snow-white backdrop resulting in everything that they pass to illuminate. The ad still continues today with many fans marking its showing on television as the beginning of Christmas. These images of recycling the past are very much evident in postmodern studies. Reproducing existing images is one of the reasons why postmodernism is often referred to as a culture of reproduction. It is, however, no surprise that Coca-Cola takes such pride in its Christmas advertisements as ‘more advertising is displayed in December than any other month’ and more commodities are purchased than in any other season. Furthermore, the ‘Holidays are coming’ advertisement has been running for many years and are even successful in creating a sense of nostalgia to the audience as Jameson explains: ‘It is a complex object in which on some first level children and adolescents can take the adventures straight, while the adult public is able to gratify a deeper and more properly nostalgic desire to return to that older period’.

However, before Santa Claus, Coca-Cola relied primarily on images of smartly-dressed young women to sell its beverages as highlighted by the image of Hilda Clark, the first model for Coca-Cola dressed in 19th century formal clothing holding onto a glass of their product. Many of these early advertisements for Coca-Cola featured popular public figures such as movie stars, singers and athletes, a tradition continued today by the company, highlighted by the inclusion of today’s stars like Wayne Rooney. Fowler notes that because of the world’s increasing devotion to popular culture stars, ‘advertisers were quick to appreciate the sacred relationship between popular culture idols and spectators, and quick to hire stars as their spokespeople’. Famous stars bring to the advertisement what lesser known people could not as Fowler continues: ‘These performers have found their fame within the domain of popular culture, and when they reappear in the domain of advertising, they to one degree or another bring with themselves an aura of entertainment and diversion’.

Coca Cola's Santa

Adverts used to be straight to the point, we were led to believe that we should buy that particular item because it was the best in its field; For instance an advertisement for Coca Cola from 1910 simply said: ‘Vigorously good – and keenly delicious. Thirst-quenching and refreshing. The national beverage – and yours’ with the tagline stating: ‘A man’s drink – A woman’s drink – Everybody’s drink.’ Fowles notes that ‘even the most fervid critic of advertising is unlikely to take issue with an early ad.’ He continues, ‘older advertisements are treated fondly because they pose no threat’. In stark contrast however, in this postmodern landscape we consume vague, yet sometimes inventive advertisements as West notes:

‘The Budweiser series of adverts featuring chameleons enviously looking upon three frogs simply chanting ‘Bud-weis-er’ (contained) nothing about beer. Then there was Flat Eric, a funky, street-wise puppet who, with his fugitive human companion, helped to raise the profile of Levi’s Sta-Prest jeans, while simultaneously telling us nothing about what they looked like or how comfy they were.’

The Budweiser Chamelion Advertisemnt

Don Matzat equally agrees, writing ‘Postmodern advertising does not place one product over the other. That is mean-spirited. You buy Bud because of frogs and lizards, not because it tastes better than Coors.’ This idea can be equally interpreted to Coke, it doesn’t necessarily taste better than Pepsi but it sells more because of its advertising.

Ken Sanes argues that postmodern advertisements have seen a strange new cultural creation – the 20 second ‘cinematic’ production:

‘… Full of dancing, singing and joke-telling… ultra-abbreviated plots and quick resolutions of conflict in which the characters overcome obstacles and fulfil their desires in record time with the help of the product.’

Commercial are now dynamic, and theatrical which reinforce each other to achieve their effect of making ‘false promises that make everything seem better than it is.’ As a clinical psychologist notes, Coca-Cola’s advertising conveys that “life will never be boring, that you will be sexually popular beyond your wildest dreams, and that you’ll always be able to dance well if you drink colas.”

Coca-Cola was the first-ever sponsor of the Olympic Games and has continued being a sponsor ever since. Furthermore, the company has been a frequent sponsor of other major league sporting events, such as Fifa, the NFL, NBA, MLB to name a few. Frederic Jameson argues that co-modification in the era of postmodernism is a time when everything becomes co-modified. Jameson’s view is seen as being introspective to today’s society; people projecting their identity through the products they own, rather than how they act and think. This is particularly evident in the ‘waning of affect’ signifying the loss of individuality and emotion due to a culture exploding with images of commodities. For instance, by watching a football match the audience would be inundated with images of the Coca-Cola logo on the sideline billboards, during advertisements and maybe as a sponsor on their team’s uniform. This idea is reflected in a New York Times editorial:

‘You can run from it, but you can’t hide. Sooner or later, no matter how far you think you’ve ventured from the comforts and conveniences of the modern world, Coke will find you. Go to the foothills of the Himalayas, the hurricane pounded fishing islands off the coast of Nicaragua-go to the birthplace of civilization, if you like. Coca-Cola will be waiting for you.’

Moreover, the Coca-Cola Company, in an attempt to create subtle product placement, purchased Columbia Pictures in 1982. They hoped that they could continue (discretely) advertising their products while also earning money from the movie industry, however, they sold the company to Sony in 1989 after the company began to under perform. It was these examples of advertising that had social commentators in uproar as one angry observer notes: (Coke is) “the most incredible mobilization of human energy for trivial purposes since the construction of the pyramids”. It was, he said, “what went wrong with the American dream.”

However, Coke has always tried to maintain its wholesome image. The Coca-Cola Company always provides clean water it times of floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters as one employee wrote, ‘they particularly enjoyed and appreciated The Coca-Cola and Sprite we gave them… It was a great feeling to help in a small way’ after Hurricane George struck Puerto Rico. Furthermore, the company supports educational programmes across the globe as well as supplying funds to many charities.

Yet Frederic Jameson argues that because of companies like Coca-Cola ‘the individual is “dead”… that older bourgeois individual subject no longer exists.’ This is largely down to commodification as Fowles notes:

‘As entrepreneurs seek out areas of human existence as yet untouched by the mechanisms of the production/consumption economy and attempt to insert products and marketplace transactions there, they are commodifying what had been previously been uncommodofied.
From a Marxist perspective, commodification, therefore implies that anything can be ‘subjected to the insistence of the capitalistic production/consumption economy’. Jameson continues that ‘the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late, consumer or multinational capitalism.’ It is therefore, evident in Fowler’s opinion that ‘individuals are defined by the sum of their purchases.’ Robert Goldman is in accordance with this view stating that ‘the triumph of the commodity form is that we do not recognise its presence at all.’

The Coca Cola Foundation

Judith Williamson argues that the use of ‘the play of signifiers, the manipulation of history and the erasure of temporal differences to evoke nostalgia, the use of linguistic and visual puns, the arrangement of fragments, absences, substitutions and synecdoche’s (in advertisements) – suggests a postmodern medium’. Over the years there has been a change in how products are advertised and Coca-Cola is an example of this. Nowadays ads ‘say less about the product and more about the cultural representations of the advertisement itself as opposed to its referential product.’ Coke in particular uses many postmodern theories by references other products, using the celebrity, creating nostalgia and being a universal, globalised mega brand. Coca-Cola manipulates its consumers through its advertisements so that the product is “irresistible.” The most powerful Coca-Cola appeal has not, ultimately, been sexual or physiological, but communal as Pendergrast notes:

‘If you drink Coke… you will belong to a warm, loving, accepting family, singing in perfect harmony. If we can’t quite succeed in finding that stress-free society today, never mind – we’ll find it tomorrow. We’ll build a better world for you, and me, and everyone. Always. Always Coca-Cola.’

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2 Comments

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