'We'd like to teach the world to drink...'

To many, Coca-Cola's ads represent the epitome of American lifestyle. Peter York looks back on 80 years of the very best - and worst - of pitches
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The Independent Online


Coke picks up on contemporary themes for its advertising. Not straight away - the themes have to be established in media first, with recognisable imagery, if you're targeting huge international audiences. And not little fashion blips either, Coke has historically always needed a big trend to ride. So here, in 1931, we've got The Modern Girl, an archetype from Hollywood which, in turn, had drawn on flappers and the new post-Great War army of metropolitan working women, the typists and stenographers and filing clerks who filled the shiny new steel-framed buildings in New York and Chicago. She's busy, so Coco-Cola becomes the "The pause that refreshes" before she's "off again, to a fresh start" in her Hollywood knock-off cream cape-shouldered coat and her two-tone shoes, striding towards her Big Future, but still - a ladylike pre-war survival - wearing long gloves.


In the Fifties, Coke had big international themes with local variations. And no country in Coke's world strategy was considered to need more variation than Britain. A market report had said US braggadocio went down badly here. The big idea was modernity, the local adaptation lay in using home-grown heroes from the British entertainment and sporting pantheon when Coke first advertised on ITV in 1956. Most of it's a completely lost world - Mary Malcolm and Tommy Trinder, Alec Bedser the cricketer, and ballroom dancer Alf Davis - but one image still seems fresh and modern. It's the racing driver Stirling Moss, with his beautiful aerodynamic car looking a bit like Sir Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird. Sir Stirling, as he is now, is still in the advertising game, he was in colour supplement ads last weekend telling us how he's been cured of erectile dysfunction in just 10 minutes.


This is Anna Karina touting for Coke in 1959. The French New Wave film star - Mrs Jean-Luc Goddard, all that - was still Danish model Hanne Karin Blake Bayer. Here she is, promoting her own cinema and TV Coke ads to UK retailers "Put me on your staff in 1959" means use the point-of-sale featuring her and stock up with Coke to cash in. Hanne /Anna was a key late 50s/early 60s archetype - the Euro-Gamine - with her short hair and kittenish face she's utterly different from the Hollywood Post-War blonde stunners and the ladylike English models - she's a bit Audrey Hepburn, a nearly Jean Seberg, with a new kind of sex appeal. Unlike the 1931 girl, she's drinking from the bottle, with a straw, though just like her she's wearing gloves. But, because she's the sophisticated new Euro-girl, they're black.


Coca-Cola used the "Things Go Better With Coke" slogan from 1963 to 1969. The idea was a bit like Mars' "helps you work, rest and play" but without the high nutritional science. It was certainly active because the 1963 campaign showed people diving, bowling and playing tennis - and drinking Coke. And it introduced that durable jingle "Things go better with Coca-Cola. Things go better with Coke" (it's completely burned on to my discs, I can tell you). It's another example of how Coke ads used in a number of countries - called 'pattern ads' - were adapted locally for the UK. It was a scissors and paste approach rather than a complete remake. Thus 'Coke' was always re-rendered as 'Coca-Cola' for the English market and voices and detailing were localised.


Here's an early example of Coke's truck fetish. It's part of a 60s series - adapted from American originals - about how Coke features in the lives of 'ordinary' people. Truckers are epic in the old romance of the American super-prole because of the huge distances they cover and the giant Mack trucks they drive with their big bulldog radiator mascots. Our boys weren't quite in that league in the 60s, but here's "Alan Beale" from London with his big frame and his crucial American-looking check shirt. The ad asked its audience life's big questions. "Do things go better with Coke?" and "Is Coco-Cola always refreshing?" And then gave Alan's address in London so viewers could actually write to him.


Endlessly parodied as about the most American commercial imaginable for its warm sentiments and its Unicef cast of multi-cultural school-children (by 1971 standards), it actually started life in Britain. It's based around a song written in Claridges by three old Tin Pan Alley hands and recorded by The New Seekers ("I'd like to teach the world to sing"/ "I'd like to buy the world a Coke"). The original shoot was set up on the Dover cliffs. Continuous rain stopped play there and the shoot was moved to Rome. It was first shown in Europe where it was deeply underwhelming. But in when it was released in the US in July 1971 it hit a huge nerve - 100,000 letters about the ad' to Coke; constant requests to radio stations to play the commercial and a massive hit record derived from original advertising music (re-written without the Coke references)


Now here's a low point - 1989's made-in-US teen love is about as sloppy as you can get, with all the belated borrowings from big 80s films and Madonna's kits. Singer Robin Becks' single "The First Time" was introduced by this commercial, which was shown around the world. Apparently it went platinum. I absolutely can't remember it, but American and British tastes couldn't have been more different then. There's a lot of knitwear in this campaign and a lot of significant glances. Maybe it's just the wrong year anyway - 1989 was a bummer all round.


Bears were big for Coke in the Nineties. They introduced a completely new kind of polar bear in 1993. These new computer-generated bears weren't real or cartoony, they were surreal and spacey. When they moved the motion was extraordinarily convincing, as if the makers had somehow traced and pixilated that bulky muscle mass underneath the thousands of white hairs in the fur that rippled so realistically. A family group of these new bears sat in the strange polar darkness and watched the Aurora Borealis, drinking from bottles of Coca-Cola. They made little puppy-ish sounds, not brutal bearish-ones. It all works well below the Plimsoll line of the unconscious and, unlike most of Coke's Great Themes, it's got tons of aaah factor.


Have you ever seen lovelier lorries than these? It's a caravan of magical Coca-Cola trucks, all lit up, making their way across the country, delivering Coke and illuminating the landscape. For Christmas! It's so compelling it can even suspend disbelief about Coke as a key part of the winter holiday. It was George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic business which turned a few 40ft prop trucks - each lit by 30,000 bulbs - into an endless caravan. They're constantly updating and re-using the caravan idea, which re-works archetypes of trains, fairground gypsy caravans and 19th-century Father Christmases. Coke have real-life illuminated trucks too now, and they've gone global. They entered Berlin via the Brandenburg Gate in 1998, and in 1999 visited Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Moldova, presumably curing the sick and raising the dead.

HUNK 1994-98

Look at the tits on that one. Here's Coke, getting in on the idea that modern women have drives and juices very like men's, and they like to get together to ogle hunks. It's a 90's theme that animated funny, period TV programmes like "The Girlie Show". In the Coke version a group of office girls have an appointment to view at 11.30am when a hefty construction worker over the road stops, takes his shirt off and, downs a Coke. A Coke 'Light' as it happens because Diet Coke was being sold primarily to women back then. It all looks faintly dated now, picking up on a trend whose time has passed, but it did the business at the time.

"I WISH" 2004

This was Coca-Cola Great Britain 2004, launching the first television advertisement in a new multi-media "Real world of Coca-Cola" campaign, made by a young, fast-growing, smart British agency called Mother. But it's every bit as much about high concepts and sloshily elevated sentiment as if it had been made back in the land of inspirational emotion. It's a kind of 21st-century "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing". It's got a home-grown black singer - Sharlene Hector - and the big idea, according to Coke's press release at the time, was that "It shows how one person can help to inspire others and bring people together, simply by sharing bottles of Coca-Cola and expressing her hopes and aspirations in a song." ("I Wish", originally recorded by Nina Simone). Now, does that remind you of anything?


And now, for the fun-loving peoples of Britain, Coke's latest cultural construct Tort the Tortoise, the new face of Diet Coke. Diet Coke started off as pretty much a ladies' brand, but now it's unisex, with 40 per cent of its drinkers male. So, instead of perfect bodies it's humour and what they call "getting the most out of life" (cf. "Things go better with Coke!"). The tortoise is animatronic, thoroughly state-of-the-art and completely up for anything. He plays football, skateboards and philosophises. "Live fast, love life and feel good in your shell" is Tort's big idea. Coke are so keen on this new universal approach they're increase the marketing spends by 50 per cent.