Coca-Cola Advertising and the Mask of Authenticity

Advertising identifies trends, raids culture and constructs desires (Lyth, p3). Through a semiotic qualitative textual analysis, this paper explores how Coca Cola advertisements, at three key junctures in history, have relied upon an authentic/commercial binary that has existed since the Romantic turn during the Enlightenment to promote the myth of a depth ontology and an authentic self in contrast to ‘shallow consumerism’(Banet-Weiser, 2012, Erving Goffman and the Performed Self 2015, Potter, 2010). In line with Stuart Halls (In Hobbs, 2017, p. 127) perspective which shows that signs are polysemic and communicate, dominate, negotiated, and oppositional readings these following advertisements and commercials are read through a textual analysis to uncover how Coca Cola constructed an iconic brand leading an identity branding revolution rationalised and energised by the construction of the authenticity /consumerist binary.  In the Authenticity Haux (2010) Andrew Potter explores ‘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).  Coca Cola has leveraged the authenticity binary and elevated its exchange value beyond its utility value by aligning its sign value with the myth of an authentic core sociable self. As it presents itself as a patent therapeutic elixir, in contrast to ‘shallowness consumerism’ and the somehow immaterial ‘virtual mediated world’ the effect has been of perpetuating and normalising the eternal search and display of competitive self-improvement, and self-knowledge, and a counter-culture which acts to provide consumer capitalism with the renewal it uses to construct new desires (Potter 2010, Banet-Weiser 2012).

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 need (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 fulfilment 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).

coke1
Figure 1. 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, Public Domain retrieved 16 August 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/coca-colas-creator-said-drink-would-make-you-smarter-180962665/

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.

coke voucher
Figure 3. 1886 Original Coke Voucher introduced on May 8 1886. Public Domain

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 the 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[1] (Cited in Cluley 2017, p. 138).  Soda Fountains in themselves already carried connotations of an ‘authentic fake’ ‘more real than 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 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).

Coke and the Creative Revolution in Advertising

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 of 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 fulfil 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).

Think Small

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 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 reflecting 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 which 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 turtle doves.

(Chorus)

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

(Chorus 2)

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 turtle doves – a symbol of peace and harmony align themselves with the values. In this context, the diversity and dress provide a political critique of Americas ‘imperialist’ intervention in Vietnam and presents 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 neo-liberal diet internationally in a globalised market (History of Coca-Cola Documentary, 2014). Thomas Frank informs us anti-consumerist brand tribes are ultimately consumed into 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 advertisings 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 behaviour 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 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 name.  The campaign resulted in a healthy sales increase and an 870 per cent 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 and ‘Share a Coke’ is another classic example of this by employing fans and non-professional prosumers to connote an authentic sign value.

Conclusion

Coca Cola has worked hard to create an authentic sign value which is read negotiated and opposed. As a 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 of 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 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 which 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.

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Images:

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/