Advertising plays a significant role in shaping our desires and constructing our sense of self. According to Lyth (p3), advertising identifies trends, raids culture, and constructs desires. In this essay, we will explore how Coca-Cola advertisements have relied upon the concept of authenticity and commercialism to promote the idea of a depth ontology and authentic self in contrast to shallow consumerism.
Coca-Cola has a rich history of advertising and has been a pioneer in constructing its brand image through advertisements that leverage the authenticity/commercialism binary. Through a semiotic qualitative textual analysis, this paper will examine three key junctures in the history of Coca-Cola advertisements and explore how the company has relied upon this binary to promote its brand.
In line with Stuart Hall’s perspective, which shows that signs are polysemic and communicate, dominate, negotiated, and oppositional readings, these advertisements and commercials will be read through a textual analysis to uncover how Coca-Cola has constructed an iconic brand and led an identity branding revolution. The concept of authenticity is central to this analysis, and as Andrew Potter explains in Authenticity (Haux, 2010), “authenticity is the contemporary advertising equivalent of the search for the holy grail, the ultimate marketing position that can elevate the brand above the shiny fabricated world of spun messages and concocted experiences” (p.3).
ChatGPT was on my wavelength. For the record, my article was written well before 2021 when ChatGPT finalised its data.
The Therapeutic Ethos
Coke as a product emerged in the late nineteenth century during the transition from a production to a consumption economy and the rise of the Therapeutic Ethos. Thanks to the conditions set up in the Industrial Revolution in the late Eightieth century this was the time when more people had access to consumer goods (Marshall, 2018, p 11.) While advertising had existed for centuries in symbols like barbers’ polls, in practices like town criers, and in products like the pamphlets of the 18th century these practices are ‘qualitatively different’ to the modern consumer movement where, a new abundance of consumer goods would transform society to unleash the self (Marshall, 2018, p 11.). The Therapeutic Ethos as articulated by JT Lears, (1983) showed how values of ‘personal betterment’ arose as people became more alienated from the means of production, had more time, and wants replaced needs (Lears 1983 p. 1181). Instead of honouring of frugal restraints of Protestant work, virtues like sincerity, self-control an ethic of a more immediate form of satisfaction and self-potential fulfillment through the consumption of goods and services emerged.
Coke as a Patent Medicine
Coke was in this context, developed by Southern Pharmacist and civil war veteran addicted to morphine John Pemberton who brewed up a soft drink consisting of coca leaves, kola nuts and sugar syrup but like many patent medicines, through pseudo-science puffery ‘was marketed as a remedy for fatigue and headaches,’ which is achieved through a dose of cocaine (Holm 2017, p.21). Coke also symbolically signalled a sign value as metonymic of the authentic free and social authenticity the Therapeutic Ethos changes bought making it a commercial success appealing to the wealthy white elites of Atlanta Georgia (History of Coca-Cola Documentary, 2014).
This Patent Era (around 1900) poster image contains several signs, both text and image across a pale background. Central to the text is a drawing of a woman with a glass of Coca Cola at a table. Drawn on the table are a voucher and a vase of flowers. The Logo is bottom and on the glass. The largest text at the top of the screen has the words ‘Ideal Brain Tonic’.
The quality and finery of the woman’s dress, the quality of her garments, and the stylish setting in which the woman mindfully looks to drink a glass of Coke speak of connotes a world of superior social class. Desirable social characteristics and refinements like flowers carry the connotation of something delightful and natural and are often associated with selfless gift-giving. The word’s ‘Delightful Summer and Winter’ are juxtaposed above the woman’s head like a halo and the deminer is of poised and socially at ease person connoting superior social class. The glass of Coke in the woman’s hand anchors the meaning that consuming Coke is a ticket into, and a means to signal an esteemed place in this esteemed place in this competitive social world. By presenting an aura of natural, freely given sociability the brand also attempts to distinguish this sign value exists ‘authentically’ above consumerism.
In 1895, 154 thousand glasses of Coke were redeemed with these vouchers. The voucher looks vaguely like a banknote where the predominant feature is a large Coke logo. Surrounding this is a more text and embellishments. Words like genuine, and entitlement signal an aura of authority and work to anchor the message that the holder is entitled to claim a ‘free’ glass of coke. The connotations of being free, have as much to do with the new freedoms available in the consumerist lifestyle given the context.
The organic style of the hand-written text, the use of the word genuine work which to elevate the brand and give it an aura of sociability and authenticity and surplus value. From a Marxist perspective, we come to recognise ourselves through symbolic representations and increasingly become more interested in these appearances than the reality leading Alberto Echo to claim that the ordinary world can seem a little droll in comparison to the ‘authentic fake’ of hyperreality (Cited in Cluley 2017, p. 138). Soda Fountains in themselves already carried connotations of an ‘authentic fake’ ‘more real than the real world’ associated with the therapeutic ethic and were described as places where ‘products of nature were blended and mixed’ to capture the ‘right taste’, and where ‘women could enjoy the freedom of censorship’ and a ‘sociability’ in a way that brightened up the nineties and made them ’exciting’ and ‘gay’ (History of Coca-Cola Documentary, 2014).
Coca Cola is a brand that has successfully leveraged the authenticity binary to promote its products as not just a beverage, but a symbol of natural, freely given sociability. This branding strategy is rooted in the idea that by presenting an aura of authenticity, Coca-Cola can distinguish itself from consumerism and other commercial brands.
By aligning its sign value with the myth of an authentic core sociable self, Coca-Cola has been able to tap into the idea that people are seeking deeper connections and experiences beyond the superficial world of consumerism. The brand presents itself as a patent therapeutic elixir that can provide a refreshing escape from the shallowness of consumer culture, and offer a chance to connect with others on a deeper level.
To achieve this, Coca-Cola has relied upon iconic advertisements that evoke feelings of happiness, joy, and togetherness. The brand’s advertisements often feature imagery of families and friends gathering together to share a Coke, creating an image of a world where people are authentically connected to one another. The advertisements also frequently use natural imagery, such as forests and oceans, to further emphasize the idea that Coca-Cola is a naturally occurring, authentic product.
In this way, Coca-Cola has positioned itself as a counter-culture to consumerism, offering a sense of authenticity that is lacking in the commercial world. By perpetuating the idea that there is an authentic core to ourselves that can be found through its product, the brand has created a desire for authenticity that can only be satisfied by drinking a Coke.
In conclusion, Coca-Cola has successfully leveraged the authenticity binary to promote its brand as a symbol of natural, freely given sociability, and to distinguish itself from consumerism. By presenting itself as a patent therapeutic elixir that can provide a deeper connection with others, Coca-Cola has created a desire for authenticity that is perpetuated and normalized through its iconic advertisements.
Coke and the Creative Revolution in Advertising
In recent years, Coca-Cola has continued to push the boundaries of creativity in advertising, using social media, influencer marketing, and other innovative techniques to reach new audiences and build brand loyalty. Through its focus on creating emotional connections with consumers and presenting itself as a symbol of authenticity and sociability, Coca-Cola has established itself as one of the world’s most iconic and successful brands.
The Creative revolution in advertising emerged following an era of conventional and standardised advertising. As explored in the television series Madmen this started with the Think Small advertisement for Volkswagen and reached its zenith with the iconic Hilltop commercial by Coke, created by the McCann Erickson agency (Holm, p. 27). Consumption was thriving fuelled by post-war efforts to rebuild and an expansion of credit which was deemed necessary for future prosperity. If advertisers had previously been content to fulfill desires now was the time advertisers ‘worked to create rather than merely satisfy wants and desires’ and by using psychological research techniques to tap into people’s desires and fears’ (Marshall, p, 87). The role of business in this context was to manage desire and to ‘ensure that people are never satisfied’ as ‘reason why advertising became an all-out persuasion machine (ibid).
The Think Small Advertisement by Volkswagen is illustrative of the aesthetic shift towards image-driven creativity and individualistic identity and consumption branding that occurred as young people identified ‘authentically’ in contrast to consumerism. While automobile advertisements had historically been promoted by rational attributes like size and prowess to connote status Think Small ironically poked fun at these ideals. The boring, repetitive unchanging formulas produced by the men in grey flannel suits in the accounts department, of inauthenticity and conformity gave way to the creativity department with the aid of psychological insights (Holm 2017, p. 25). The way the minimalist-looking Beetle was created as a ‘hip symbol of opposition to consumer culture’ was metonymic of these changes (ibid). In the new era of consumerism, identity and lifestyle promotion would create desires rather than simply reflect them and provide identities for market segments (Marshall, p. 106).
The Hilltop Commercial
In this context Coca-Cola, a presented a sign-value for consumers to both resist and embrace consumer culture as a commodity which signified a hip youthful lifestyle that aligned itself with the civil rights and peace counter-culture movements of the time. The 1971 commercial featured the lyrics:
Figure 4. Hilltop 1972 Remastered, 2016, YouTube Streaming Video, Coca Cola, 5 April 2016, retrieved 16 August 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2406n8_rUw
I’d like to buy the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow-white turtledoves.
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company
That’s the real thing
What the world wants today
Is the real thing
And the commercial ends with the statement:
On a hilltop in Italy,
We assembled young people
From all over the world…
To bring you this message
From Coca-Cola Bottlers
All over the world.
It’s the real thing. Coke.
We can see in the add an assemblage of young people standing on a stark hillside singing the lyrics in harmony as the camera moves from face to face. The group is from diverse ethnicities each wearing the dress of their country. While all different each person holds a coke in their hand and are young and in shape.
The commercial was released after a period of great societal transformation with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Young people were involved in these political movements and the lyrics by talking about turtledoves – a symbol of peace and harmony to align themselves with the values. In this context, the diversity and dress provide a political critique of America’s ‘imperialist’ intervention in Vietnam and present an alternative vernacular cosmopolitanism. In contrast to conformity and young people simply doing what they are supposed to the individuality and diversity of the group and their clothing signifies acceptance of diversity. Coke is the common universal thread that unites all people and allows them to ‘share company’ and this is connoted by each person holding a bottle. The connotation is that buying a Coke becomes a symbolic metaphor for spreading peace and harmony as a global citizen. Coke is again ironically branding itself in opposition to the mainstream culture all the while extending its controversial high-sugar neoliberal diet internationally in a globalised market (History of Coca-Cola Documentary, 2014). Thomas Frank informs us that anti-consumerist brand tribes are ultimately consumed in consumer culture, and we can see this process accelerated in the digital era to come (Frank cited in Marshall p.88).
Coke in the Digital Era
The myth of an authentic essence in the digital era is exposed by Brazilian, American Instagram fashion Influencer Miquela Sousa – a computer-generated creation of a Los Angeles advertising firm (Marwick, 2019). Miquela’s success at gaining over one million Instagram followers attests to advertising’s ability to leverage the commodity of authenticity (The Commodification of Authenticity, 2018). Coke also has applied this mask of sociability and authenticity which has become the hallmark associated with the digital era.
Figure 1 – Miquela Sousa is testing the boundaries of social media authenticity, ABC News, retrieved 16 August 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-21/miquela-sousa-instagram-famous-influencer-cgi-ai/9767932
The Digital revolution was mythologically constructed in Silicon Valley garages as hip rebellious, authentic, cool disruptors like Steve Jobs in the infamous in 1984 Apple commercial promised to ‘think differently’ and Google employed youthful toys in its headquarters. However, this iconography that flowed from the soda fountain and through the creative revolution obscures digitals underlying extractive, shareholder-driven, capitalism where the growth-orientated corporations that seek to extend the colonial project into our minds and attention now represent the largest monopolies in history and use our data to (Zuboff, 2019).
We are now the product bought and sold in the new panopticon of surveillance capitalism where profits depend on predicting our behavior and modifying it, to have us act in line with our ever more granular consumer profiles. In this environment of unprecedented power free from democratic oversight, the question of agency becomes pertinent. In the digital era and the search for viral marketing has seen a shift from centralised producers into ‘the flows and spaces of everyday life via social media platforms’ (Holm, p. 30). Messages acquire the aura of authenticity when they pop up on someone’s social media stream alongside family pictures or appear pre-endorsed and vetted by human actors in an increasingly mediated environment.
Share a Coke
Share A Coke was an Ogilvy campaign that launched in 2011. The campaign encouraged active engagement giving up some control but also giving prosumers the opportunity to take part and re-establish Coca-Cola waning credentials as an authentic, social, youth brand (Share a Coke, 2016).
The campaign began by placing 150 different individual names on labels in the Australian market. To begin with, the change in labels was not supported by other advertising mediums but instead left up to individuals on social media to share their excitement on finding their name on a bottle of coke (Ibid). As ‘fans’ showed excitement on social media they were enlisted into the wider campaign (ibid). Rather than models or actors, Coke was creating a sign-value aligned with the authentic happiness of ‘real’ people as it extended its campaign into saturation coverage into digital, television, and interactive billboards which generated more buzz and social media. Kiosks in malls allowed consumers to have cans printed with their own names. The campaign resulted in a healthy sales increase and an 870 percent increase in Facebook traffic and 12 million earned media impressions (Ibid). Marshall informs us that when information is shared on our social media feeds we become ‘the new town criers’ and ‘when this participation can be circulated more widely through follow on advertising and commercial it has a certain authenticity which is highly prised and valued’ (2008, p. 204). Coca-Cola advertising has been constantly raiding culture to find what is sociable, youthful, and authentic and transfer this meaning, to their brand image ‘Share a Coke’ is another classic example of this by employing fans and non-professional prosumers to connote an authentic sign value.
Coca-Cola has worked hard to create an authentic sign value that is read negotiated and opposed. As Potter informs us ‘finding the authentic has become the foremost spiritual quest of our time’ that re-energises capitalism and fans the flames of consumer desire, as ‘every Coca-Cola ad builds on the idea that Coke embodies authenticity’ (Potter, 2010, p. 3). Consumers loyal to Coca-Cola have identified with the youthful, desirable, authentic image presented by the brand in campaigns like ‘it’s the real thing’ and ‘always Coca-Cola’ to attempt to distinguish itself somehow outside the matrix of ‘inauthentic’ consumerism but in the continual search of a mythical essence have contributed to the surveillance capitalism of today. The myth that authenticity branding relies on is that we live in a fallen inauthentic commercial world of economic imperatives where people crave natural, authentic experiences but by embracing the ambivalence between these poles and resisting this binary logic this helps us see the complex ways people live in contemporary branded society and exposes the immaterial unpaid labour that consumers co-invest in constructing a brand like Coca-Cola (Banet-Weiser, 2012). For more than a century we have been asked to ‘Share a Coke and actively participate in a consumer/ prosumer movement that has transformed identity, society, and the economy.
Footnotes 1. Marxist Critiques of Advertising
Marx argued in order to enjoy a product, we need to ignore the social relations under which it is produced and the prospect that we only want it because of the ‘false needs’ evoked (Cited in Cluley 2017, p. 138). Through advertising and marketing, objects are emptied of the meaning attached to their exchange value and instead take on a sign value and a symbolic set of meanings. These masks then offer the consumer the possibility of fulfilment and a tool for identy construction (Marshall, p. 16).
Society of the Spectacle
In the Society of the Spectacle, Herbert Marcuse calmed that through psychological, emotional and symbolic appeals advertises provide we come to think of ourselves in terms of the things we consume (In Cluley, 2017 p. 138). Building on these arguments Debord (1967 In Clueley 2019) posited that we come to recognise ourselves through the symbolic representations and thanks to advertising we have increasingly become more interested in these appearances than the reality.
Simulation and Hyperreality
In Simulation and Hyperreality the expectation of advertisements presenting reality has diminished and it becomes impossible to know what the fabricated images represent. A world more real than real is presented by exaggerating details of the real world (Baudrillard in Cluley, 2017p. 139). Italian theorist Alberto Echo after a trip to Disneyland thus describes advertising as an ‘authentic fake’ where the unmediated environment can seem a little droll in comparison. This led Echo to conclude that advertising can invert perceptions between what is authentic and inauthentic.
Banet-Weiser, S. 2012, Authentic: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture, New York University Press, New York.
Cluley, R. 2017, Essentials in Advertising. Kogan Page, New York.
History of Coca-Cola Documentary, 2014, YouTube Streaming Video, History Channel, 24 April 2014, retrieved 18 August 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iue7AOj9U10
Hobbs, A M. Semiotics’, in T Chalkley, M Hobbs, A Brown, T Cinque, B Warren & M Finn (eds), 2017, Communication, digital media and everyday life, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, pp. 111-127.
Holm, N. 2017, Advertising and Consumer Society, Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Lears, JT. 1983, From salvation to self-realization: advertising and the therapeutic roots of consumer culture, 1880-1930 in Lears, JT, Fox, R. ‘The Culture of consumption: critical essays in American history’, pp. 1880-1980, Pantheon, New York.
Lyth, P. 2009, “‘Think of her as your mother’: Airline advertising and the stewardess in America, 1930-1980”, Transport History, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 1-21.
Marshall, PD. & Morreale, J 2018, Advertising and Promotional Culture, Palgrave, London.
Marwick, A. 2019, ‘The Algorithmic Celebrity: The Future of Internet Fame and Microcelebrity Studies Case’, in Abidin, C. author. & Brown, ML 2019, Microcelebrity around the globe: approaches to cultures of internet fame, Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited, 2019, pp. 161 -169. retrieved 7 August 2019, <http://ezproxy.deakin.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat00097a&AN=deakin.b3997198&authtype=sso&custid=deakin&site=eds-live&scope=site>.
Potter, A. 2010, The authenticity hoax: How we get lost ﬁnding ourselves, Harper, New York.
Share A Coke 2011, YouTube streaming video, Coca Cola, 31 March 2012, retrieved 17 August 2019, <https://youtu.be/2X8Bd3-G6IU>
The Commodification of Authenticity 2018, podcast, Jamie Cohen, 5 December, retrieved 11 August 2019, <https://teamhuman.fm/episodes/ep-113-jamie-cohen-the-commodity-of-authenticity/>
Wharton, C. 2014, Advertising: Critical Approaches, Taylor and Francis, Hoboken.
Zuboff, S. 2018, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, PublicAffairs, New York.
A vintage ad for Coca Cola from around the late 19th or early 20th century, 2017, ‘Coca-Cola’s Creator Said the Drink Would Make You Smarter’, Smithsonian Institute, 29 March 2017, retrieved 16 August 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/coca-colas-creator-said-drink-would-make-you-smarter-180962665/
Hilltop 1972 Remastered, 2016, YouTube Streaming Video, Coca Cola, 5 April 2016, retrieved 16 August 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2406n8_rUw
Share a Coke 2012, 2018, in ‘The Winning Coca-Cola Formula for a Successful Campaign’, Wrike, 6 August 2018, , retrieved 16 August 2019, https://www.wrike.com/blog/winning-coca-cola-formula-successful-campaign/