Counter-Cola: A Multinational History of the Global Corporation

The Real Thing

In 1969 Coca-Cola released its new advertising campaign, “It’s the Real Thing,” which epitomized the Company’s attempts to harness contemporary youth’s cultural and political turn. Coca-Cola and McCann-Erickson sought out folk, rock and soul groups to sing song-form ads, while avoiding jingles and staged dramatic dialogue, which now sounded “phony” and fraudulent.[i]  These songs – like this one from James Brown in 1969 - emphasized “the real”; “the genuine, the basic and the authentic qualities of Coke.”  As a Company magazine explained,[ii]  it “grew out of listening to pleas of the sixties.  ‘Take us away from the plastics to basics.’”[iii]  Over any “real” as in actual attribute of the product– it was a feeling of realness and an appeal to notions of authenticity that was being advertised.  Such advertising played on the otherness of black artists and countercultural rock stars, whose sounds and styles seemed to implicitly challenge normative middle class culture, and suggest the raw, “real thing,” with which Coca-Cola was trying to associate.  Print advertising mimicked the psychedelic style of sixties and seventies concert posters, with their planes of vivid, solid colors and wild, unrestrained images.  

The Company’s advertising had been a virtually whites-only field of representation with only a few versions of ads featuring black models in the 1950s and a de facto rule against “integrated” advertising.  But now the company used race as a signifier of authenticity and hipness to the changing times:  long form songs featured popular African American musicians and for the first time the company put out integrated print advertising.

To assert Coke as “the real thing,” to a generation of consumers who were being told they were members of the “Pepsi Generation,” was to suggest that it was the original, authentic cola, in an early salvo in a corporate image battle that was becoming known as “The Cola Wars.”[iv]  And ads used Folk and Rock aesthetics as signifiers of a youth cultural and political insurgency against what had come before, in “Real Thing” ads in the US, in Latin America where it was translated to “The Spark of Life,” in India, and across the Company’s international markets.
[i] Pendergrast, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola:  The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. 288.
[ii] Refresher, The Coca-Cola Company, March, 1982, 19.
[iii] Backer, The Care and Feeding of Ideas. 56.
[iv] Backer explained the thinking:  “Also several new generations had become soft-drink consumers since Pepsi had been introduced and they were now asking which cola was 'the original.'  And so the basis of the campaign was right for its times." Ibid.

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