Peter York On Ads: For top production values, you can't beat the first Noël


Advertising has a long history. And its own curators and analysts. People who see the Spirit of the Age in an American breakfast cereal ad of 1950 or a triumphalist BA commercial of the 1980s. Some advertisers are positively patrons of the arts. They commission memorable advertising that holds up 30 years later and tells the brand story all the way through (the marketing-speak word is "brand values"; values are hot now).

Lifetime Achievement advertisers have high production values and interesting approaches which remind you who did what first. And like the big films of their periods, a strong sense of what was powerfully aspirational in, say, 1973. Or sentimental. Old advertising doesn't hold it back any more than those films did. Old American advertising, especially, laid it on with a trowel. Still does.

The Hollywood view of Christmas comes across in all those films super- markets sell now, such as It's a Wonderful Life, and all those remade (usually less well) every few decades, such as Miracle on 34th Street.

There are several sub-texts - as we wannabe popular culture scholars say - going on here. First, the Christmas thing itself at the high point of the Golden Age of the East European Jewish movie moguls. Those films were Wasp fantasy culture, re-imagined - and miles better than the dour originals - from Prague or Warsaw. Then there was the family thing. But the brilliant sets, costumes and make-up of those supremely family films were overwhelmingly designed by un-family people, old Hollywood's legion of gay men and women - The Celluloid Closet, the Sewing Circle and the rest. Old Hollywood films aren't camp by accident, because we've shifted our perspective, but because they're absolutely chock-full of gay work. The very stuff that US evangelists see as representing the aesthetics and values of a lost, white-picket-fence America was produced by rootless cosmopolitans, employing leftie writers doing hack work and a bunch of whoopsies and lipstick lesbians who made it look wonderful.

Coco-Cola is a brand with a long advertising history, almost a film studio parade of ads and TV commercials with fashionable themes, current sentiments (the Unicef feelings of "Teach the World to Sing", for instance), and high production values. And a tradition of Christmas spectaculars. Those beautiful animated polar bears, that caravan parade of illuminated lorries. All of it powerful, schmaltzy, and almost beyond criticism. This year they've been down the archive, with a new commercial that's obviously drawn on decades of films, print artwork, old commercials - and a bit of Norman Rockwell.

It's a persuasive pastiche that starts, as you must, on the snow-covered roofs of a dream town - a low-rise 19th-century-ish gingerbread gabled town. A choir aahs away, Father Christmas materialises in the street. Not any ratty Father Christmas but the Father Christmas of pre-war Coke press artwork. The right face, the right silken wavy beard, the right red for the costume. He gives a red-ribboned trad bottle of Coke to a Forties girl looking in a glorious toy-shop window. Then on he goes, crossing little Venetian bridges, bestriding the town from a hill, giving a teenage girl skater a Coke while a 1950s film-device clock goes fast-forward and significant dates shine on to the snow. Come the 1970s he's leaving four Cokes in a milk cradle for a young mother with Karen Carpenter hair. By 2000 there's a grey-haired but radiantly unlined grandmother with her grand-daughter giving FC a Coke.

It's a pastiche of a pastiche, and according to the gnomic strapline, it's "The Coke Side of Life". But do the people at Coke HQ in Atlanta Georgia realise just how weird it is?