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Culture Re-View: Iconic moments in Coca-Cola's advertising history

Bottles and cans of Coca-Cola
Bottles and cans of Coca-Cola Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
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29 May 1886: The first ever advert for Coca-Cola


In 1886, John Pemberton was a 55-year-old veteran of the Confederate Army in Columbus, Georgia. Addicted to morphine as a result of a wound in the US Civil War, he had used his pharmacy training to find an alternative cure. The result he landed upon was a nerve tonic that featured the African Kola nut. He first called it Pemberton's French Wine Coca in 1985. Then, in 1986, he created a non-alcoholic version and changed the name to something catchier: Coca-Cola.

Pemberton first sold his new Coca-Cola drink on 8 May 1886. With claims it was a cure for morphine addiction, indigestion, nerve disorders, headaches and impotence; he advertised the drink for the first time in the Atlanta Journal on this day in 1886. The first Coca-Cola advert was born.

Since that first advert, Coca-Cola has grown to be the biggest soft-drink brand on the planet. Pemberton died in 1888 and the drink has changed since its first creation. It no longer features cocaine as an ingredient, for example. Still, Coca-Cola is one of the most recognisable brands on the planet.

A lot of that success comes down to its advertising. Today, the Coca-Cola company spends around €4 billion every year on advertising. Here are some of the most iconic moments in Coca-Cola’s advertising history.

Santa Claus

The image of Santa as an old man wearing red is sometimes misattributed as an invention by the Coca-Cola company. And while in the 1930s, there are multiple other examples of the Christmas figure represented in that way, the company had more than their fair share in making the image so definitive.

For their 1931 Christmas campaign, Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa. He painted the warm and friendly character in the typical red coat we know today.

Before 1931, Coca-Cola had mainly used well-dressed young women in their advertising. But the red Santa was a hit and they kept it, putting it as a central part of their advertising methods. Whereas Americans had known many versions of Santa pre-1931, the popularity of the Coca-Cola version enshrined its status in history.

A classic Coca-Cola SantaCanva

Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi

Around the end of the 70s, a rival cola drink was nestling in on Coca-Cola’s territory. Pepsi Cola had started trading in 1902 and the two companies had vied for market space ever since.

It all came to a head when Pepsi started running a series of adverts with people blind taste-testing the two drinks. In the ads, people who thought they preferred Coca-Cola chose to drink Pepsi instead.

The Pepsi Challenge was a successful marketing campaign and the company gained the larger share of the market until Coca-Cola hit back with a campaign of their own with an advert of two chimpanzees comparing two tennis balls to see which had more fur.

A trademark sound

This idea hasn’t exactly worked but is a great show of how ubiquitous the branding of Coca-Cola is. In 2021, Coca-Cola was rejected by the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) for an attempt to register a trademark for the sound of their cans opening.

Sound trademarks are a common thing in IP law, but unfortunately for Coca-Cola, the EUIPO didn’t consider the sound of a can of coke popping open to be as distinctive to the brand as Netflix’s tudum sound and was a key element in many drink brands.

Still, the fact they tried to get the trademark says a lot about just how recognisable Coca-Cola is in the drinks industry that they tried to lay claim to the sound of a can opening itself.

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