By Jack Griffin, VI Form
The Rise of Coca-Cola via Early 20th Century Advertising
Editor’s Note: This paper was completed as a part of the History Research Fellowship, a one-semester course available to sixth form students.
The year was 1950 when America began attacking the French economy. This was by no means a conventional attack, and the United States government played no part in this decision. Instead, the American people were furious with France because it had banned the sale of all Coca-Cola products within its borders. Given that the brand had become a pillar of American identity, the French Parliament passed the ban in order to stop the wave of Americanization sweeping through Europe.
When the French Parliament’s decision reached the U.S. on March 1, 1950, the American press began a vicious assault. “The Washington News complained about ‘the arrogantly superior French habit of snooting at our beverages, soft and hard, as so much dishwater.’” Other media comments ranged from “puzzled amusement” to New York’s Daily News suggesting “cutting off aid under the Marshall Plan.” The Coca Cola corporation played no part in inflaming the nation, but the United States saw an attack on Coca-Cola as an attack on the American way of life.
In retaliation, Americans boycotted all French products, an idea that began with radio comedian Henry Morgan of WNBC suggesting “a ban on ‘French champagne, Schiaparelli, the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon, French poodles, Chanel No. 5, eclairs, Victor Hugo, Simone Simon, and Charlemagne.” While he was not being serious, many Americans refused to buy French products such as wine, champagne, and perfume.
Before the boycott, France refused to compromise with Coca-Cola in regard to the ban. Although Coca-Cola attempted to sway France’s decision, their grievances did not pose a threat to the European nation. However, after three weeks of enduring the American counter-boycott, the French government approached Coca-Cola, hoping to reestablish the previous free trade. The French promised to rewrite any legislation obstructing the sale of Coca-Cola products, if Coca-Cola deescalated the counter-boycott. By the end of 1950, the Coca-Cola corporation had challenged the French Parliament, sparked a national movement, and outmaneuvered one of the most powerful nations in the world.
Coca Cola’s level of influence seems disproportionate to other American companies. Though it began in the hands of a sly salesman selling patent medicine loaded with stimulants such as cocaine, sugar, and caffeine, the company has grown into an international, multi-billion dollar corporation whose name is inseparable from America’s history.
Although soda sales have grown exponentially since the company was founded, this has little to do with the product itself. In 1975, Pepsi attempted to overtake Coca-Cola sales by sponsoring a series of blind taste tests between the two brands called the Pepsi Challenge. They proved that the majority of Americans favored the taste of Pepsi. If consumers in a blind taste test do not prefer Coca-Cola, then a large portion of their value must come from a love of the company.
This brand value grew during the early 20th, a period of American unification. With the rapid growth of national transportation and the invention of the radio, the previously separate regions and individual cultures of the United States were forming into a more homogenized nation. Recognizing the opportunity, companies used these new technologies to create the first national advertising campaigns. This ability to target markets beyond localized regions sparked rapid growth in the advertising industry. Combined with newly-developed marketing strategies, Coca-Cola advertising led a revolution within the nation that earned it intense customer loyalty across the United States.
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Jack Griffin is a VI form boarding student originally from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His favorite classes this year have been his STEM and history fellowships, as well as Improv class with Mr. Kent. His favorite activities are reading books, playing basketball, and being around good people.