The Four Horsemen May Charge Over the Earth—but Coca-Cola Will Remain

He presented Coca-Cola not as a mere beverage that would quench your thirst but as something symbolic of innocent everyday pleasure. He commissioned artists such as Norman Rockwell and McClelland Barclay to paint scenes of happy times, sociability, and rural tranquility that he then complemented with a message condensed into a bite-size slogan, short enough for motorists to absorb from a roadside billboard in a single glance. Messages like “Thirst knows no season” and “6,000,000 drinks a day.” Simple, eye-catching, and backed with a budget capable of putting these ads in front of millions of eyeballs, Lee’s creations set the tone for the future of advertising. Lee’s most memorable slogan, “The pause that refreshes,” came in 1929. It and the myriad variations on that theme he created captured the public imagination so effectively that the company was still using the slogan twenty years later. Its impact was still being remembered seventy years on, when the industry journal Advertising Age named it one of the ten best campaign slogans of the twentieth century.

Lee’s gentle nostalgia and positive sell captured something about the American spirit, and as the 1920s went on, people began more and more to think of Coca-Cola as representative of America. People began talking about things being “as American as Coca-Cola,” and in the southern states Coca-Cola cake, a moist chocolate cake made with the soda, became a common sight at picnics and church events. The suspicion that surrounded the drink before the First World War was gone. Now Coca-Cola was part and parcel of American life. Nothing illustrated this change in public attitudes as much as the reaction to the news that the Women Christian Temperance Union of Arkansas City would devote 1929 to stamping out the “hydraheaded menace of Coca-Cola.” Instead of finding the public rallying to their crusade, the temperance activists watched their short-lived campaign get lampooned in the newspapers and dismissed as a joke.

Many of Lee’s campaigns drew on the insights that came from Coca-Cola’s statistical department, another of Woodruff’s innovations. Formed in 1923, the department brought a scientific edge to the company’s operations. It gathered vast amounts of data about traffic patterns in towns and cities throughout the United States, so that the company could pinpoint exactly which billboards would have the most impact. It identified the most valuable retailers in the country so Coca-Cola’s sales force could visit them twice as often as less lucrative stores. It analyzed the shopping habits of forty-two thousand drugstore customers and then used the results to teach soda fountain operators how to sell more Coca-Cola and how to encourage Coke drinkers to buy additional items. The statisticians also enabled the company to start accurately predicting future sales and profits—no mean feat for a company of Coca-Cola’s size in a computerless age. And in late 1928 Coca-Cola’s statistical department sent a warning to Woodruff that an economic crash was coming.

The soda pop giant’s numbers men were right. The Roaring Twenties had been a decade of speculation, excess, and a widespread belief that share prices would keep going up and up and up. But this party came to a screeching halt in October 1929 when the stock market crashed. In the space of a week millions were wiped off the value of stocks, erasing personal and business fortunes. To recover from the losses U.S. banks began refusing to lend money to Germany to help it rebuild, prompting the German economy to collapse, which frightened American shareholders even more. Soon there were runs on the struggling banks, and businesses across America started going bust, leaving millions out of work. The Great Depression had begun.

As the economic crisis deepened, people stopped buying soda as they tried to make ends meet. Soon the soda fountains and retailers that the fizzy drink industry relied on were going under in the thousands. “There has been a tremendous loss in outlets,” Coke’s vice president of sales Harrison Jones told Woodruff in a 1932 memo. “We have found that practically all bottlers are experiencing an inability on the part of many of their small outlets to buy more than one case and pay cash. In many cases, when the truck calls in the morning, the dealers are required to ask them to come back later in the day, until such time as they can get enough money to pay the cash for a case of Coca-Cola.”

Coca-Cola responded with more advertising. While Moxie and others slashed back their advertising budget, Woodruff kept spending big—a move that made Coca-Cola even more visible than ever. “In the last four years there has been less advertising of every kind and character than at any time in fifteen years,” wrote Jones. “Since we maintained our advertising showings in all media we have stuck out as a sore thumb, and have been more dominant unquestionably than at any time before in our history.” The company’s ad budget went further too. Billboard owners didn't have enough advertisers to fill their boards, so instead of leaving their poster sites vacant, they gave Coca-Cola space for free, enabling the company to blanket America in Lee’s visions of a happier America.

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Tristan Donovan is the author of Replay: The History of Video Games and Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World. He has written for The Sunday TimesThe Daily TelegraphThe Guardian, and The Big Issue.

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