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Coca-Cola Ads and the Evolution of Creativity in Advertising

How Coca-Cola created their most iconic ads over time

Alexandra Denisa Neagoe
Published in
11 min readJun 17, 2020


Advertising is a big part of today’s world and has been for a long time. Ads are everywhere around us: in magazines, newspapers, on billboards, on TV, on the radio, online, and even in movies or TV shows. You cannot escape it. There are so many ads nowadays, and in so many forms that you don’t even realize how many ads you are watching in a day.

A big part of the advertising industry is creativity. Advertising creativity is a very important and complex part of the creation of an advertisement process and how the final product looks like. One way you can see how creativity in advertising evolved over time, is by analyzing ads done by brands over the years. And Coca Cola is the perfect brand for that.

A short history of Coca Cola

Coca Cola was invented more than 100 years ago, by a pharmacist called John “Doc” Pemberton. It was first treated as medicine but later became a soft drink.

Studying and experimenting a lot, he discovered that coca leaves and kola nuts were said to improve health. Thus, in 1885, he added these to a nerve tonic and headache cure, which he called “French Wine Coca”. Because he wanted to be ready by 1886 when the prohibition period was declared, he started working on a drink that did not contain wine.

During the winter and spring of that same year, after he concocted his new mixture which included coca, kola, lime, vanilla, nutmeg, and other ingredients, he sent it for a taste test to Jacobs’ Pharmacy. He called it “Intellectual Beverage and Temperance Drink”, however, his business partner came up with a better name, the one we all know today: “Coca Cola”.

In 1886, Jacobs’ Pharmacy served the very first Coca Cola fountain. One glass of soda cost five cents. On May 29th, the first ad for Coca Cola appeared in the Atlanta Journal. It was promoted as “Delicious! Refreshing! Exhilarating! Invigorating!”

In 1888 the company was sold, so in the following years, the new owner tried new ways to grow the business. He started sending coupons to people buying the drink persuading them to return to buy more and more. In 1893, Coca Cola was registered as a trademark, and in1985 it started being promoted as a soft drink rather than medicine. This, together with gifts like fans, lamps, or clocks carrying the company’s logo made the sales soar and thus the business grew.

In 1894, in a town in Mississippi, Joseph Biedenharn ran a small undercover bottling operation, where he bottled the syrup and sold it to people who couldn’t afford or couldn’t go to soda fountains. In 1899, however, the owner granted all bottling rights to two businessmen. By doing this, between soda fountains and bottling, he became a millionaire.

Later on, because of the fact that “colas” became so common, Coca Cola wanted to do something different. They wanted a new bottle. An employee of a glass company had an idea. He designed a bottle based on the same of a cocoa bean. In 1916 the new design was approved. They even made the logo part of the bottle instead of using a paper label. The new shape made the Coca Cola bottle recognizable even in the dark.

In 1916, Asa Candler stepped down and in 1918, the company was sold to Robert Woodruff. Sales began to drop. However, in 1923, Robert’s son, Ernest, took over and he stood at the helm of the company for decades. During his time, red became the color of the company.

In 1928, Coca Cola sold, for the first time, more in bottles than it did at soda fountains. No other soda could compete with it until the mid-1930s when Pepsi-Cola started selling more for the same price. When World War II started, Coca Cola was already in 44 countries. During the war, they supplied the troops with soda. After it, the shortened version “coke” also became a trademark.

It grew so big, it became a cultural symbol. Today, Coca Cola is one of the largest beverage companies in the world. Their headquarter is still in Atlanta. The recipe of the Coke is still a well-kept secret.

What makes the Coca Cola brand so iconic besides its history or taste? The advertisements, of course. Coca Cola has a long history of creating great advertisements. Coca Cola always had a way to “getting stuck” into people’s minds.

Advertising Creativity

So what is advertising creativity? After reading quite a few books and papers on it here is one I have found that I really liked:

“advertising creativity, embraces both “originality” and innovation”” (El-Murad & West, 2004).

In order to be successful, an ad has to fulfill a few conditions and have various elements such as impact, quality, style, and relevance. The idea behind it should be new, unique, and relevant to the product and the audience. An idea that is considered a winner, one that is memorable and stands out.

Most of the time, creativity is described in terms such as “creative thinking”, “creative ability”, “problem-solving”, “innovation” or “imagination”. It also involves aspects of “newness” and “originality” as well as provide value and be useful.

So why discuss Coca Cola ads? Simple. Because of its long history, its impact as a brand and, of course, the large number.

One question, however, prevails. What should you look for in an ad when it comes to creativity. Well, here are a few things I look for:

· elements of text such as headline, subhead, body copy, slogan, logo

· elements of creativity such as novelty, flexibility, complexity, elaboration, humor, richness, fantasy, emotion and colorfulness, appropriateness

· elements of culture such as political events or social movements

·technological evolution, potential competition and other elements that might appear along the way

Now that we know all this time to check the ads out. We’re starting with the 1890s.

One of the first Coca Cola ads featuring Hilda Clark
One of the first Coca Cola ads featuring Hilda Clark

The 1890s were very focused on color and people, mainly women. It is also characterized by ads being painted rather than printed, making them even more impactful. Culturally speaking, the outfits the women wore, reflect on how women dressed during that time, while creatively speaking, color, fluency, and novelty are very much present.

In the 1900s the United States of America established itself as a world power. They started drilling for petrol, and during this time, the country knew a time of prosperity. However, creatively speaking, the ads were not as impactful as the previous one. The focus is more on textual promotion, rather than visual, as it can be seen below.

Coca-Cola advertisement on the cover of “American Druggist” Magazine, 1900
Coca-Cola advertised the soft-drink as “The Great National Drink,” at baseball games and even had Cleveland player Napoleon Lajoie endorse it.

The 1910s bring back color and people but still remains focused on the text. It is a period of evolution in the United States.

People and painting-like ads are still a big part of Coca-Cola’s strategy. People are still the center of attention, but they seem to pay more attention to the use of fonts and placement of elements. During this decade also appears one of the first ads related to a historical event from the country: a baseball match and a public figure, in this case, a baseball player, to deliver the message of the ad.

We’re now off to the roaring 20s!

In the 1920s, status-conscious advertising appeared. This meant that the ads appearing in the media separated the poor from the rich. Historically speaking, this decade, also known as the “Roaring Twenties” is characterized by dramatic social and political change. The “consumer society” began to flourish and people from coast to coast were buying the same things.

The ads began to have a more straight forward message, but the painting-like approach was still in place, although printed ads started to become more popular (as it can be seen below). Text is present in most ads and but so is color and human presence. Slogans also start to appear more often such as “Delicious and Refreshing”, which was used in quite a few ads during this period.

Woman looking at a Coca Cola glass

From an advertising point of view, the 1930s show a switch from the product to the consumer. It was also a time of great cultural impact at a global level because Coca Cola released the first ad with the man himself, SANTA CLAUS. It related to culture and history because it uses an iconic figure that everyone loves. The ad features the already known slogan “Delicious and Refreshing” and leaves you with the idea that even Santa loves Coca Cola.

First ad with Santa Claus

The 40s knew and an explosion of creativity in the United States, people were more interested in culture: movies, radio, or Broadway. This decade is also known for World War II, in which all great powers, including America, were involved, which is also reflected in the ads. During this time another Santa Claus ad was released, but the one that really stood out in this decade was one with soldiers returning from war and soldier looking at a Coca-Cola poster, smiling. The slogan “Delicious and Refreshing” is still present and although colorful it evokes a lot of sensitivity because of the human approach it has.

A soldier returning from war looking at a poster of an Coca-Cola ad

In the 1950s the consumer economy is more present than ever. Advertising promised to transform the consumer. Historically, this decade is another decade known for its prosperity amongst the American citizens. The economy is blossoming; America is the strongest military power and all sectors know a “boom”, which is why this is one of the reasons that this decade is also known as the Baby Boom decade.

This decade also brings us one of the first ads that feature people of color as the main element of the ad, having a lot of novelty because of it. It also evokes a lot of happiness and prosperity all throughout the decade.

One of the first ads featuring people of color
Seafood Barbecue along with King Size Coke 1960

During the 1960s, advertising revolved around guilt and fear and promises of happiness and glamorous living. Historically, this decade was a decade of a social movement, civil rights movement, and counterculture.

One ad that stands out, because of its complexity, shows a potential dinner table or dinner dish popular at the time. The headline states “Be really refreshed…around the clock!” and the following body copy “At dinner time…serve this Seafood Barbecue along with King Size Coke and be really refreshed! Only Coca-Cola gives you that cheerful lift… that cold crisp taste that makes good food more savory” and the slogan “Sign of good taste!”. The central element of the ad is the image with the coke and the dinner plate.

The 1970s and the 1980s are kind of similar. From an advertising point of view, elements such as country music, small-town life, family picnics, and farmyards are the main focus in the campaigns. From a historic point of view, the era was characterized by a fight for equality and against the war in Vietnam

One of the more popular ads of the decade was one that drew attention on various media platforms: “The Hilltop” commercial. And although it was first done for TV, it could be seen in print as well. It features two images, one with a woman singing and the other one with a group of people holding Coca-Cola bottles and singing along. In the middle of the ad is the following phrase “I’d like to buy the world a Coke!” Culture is very present in this ad because it features various people from different backgrounds and has a message of unity very present in that day and age.

The Hilltop ad

For Coca-Cola, the 1980s was a decade of introducing new things. The focus is mostly on the product, rather than the consumer. One ad that stands out, is one featuring a new item: Cherry Coke. The ad is quite simple but has a lot of colors. The main element of focus is the dose of Cherry Coke on ice. The text simply reads in yellow “Outrageous!”.

Ad for Cherry Coke

We made it to the 90s! Whoohoo!

In the 1990s, people were getting bored of the traditional commercial so the anti-commercial appeared. Historically, this is considered a good decade; the economy is growing, the unemployment rate dropped, and good news was more prominent than bad news.

One ad that sticks out is the first ad featuring the now-classic Polar Bear. The main focus is obviously the Polar Bear holding a bottle of Coke with the headline “Always cool” with the logo and text “Always Coca-Cola” in the bottom right corner. It has novelty because it introduces a new character that would later become iconic, just like Santa Claus. History is not really reflected in the ads and neither is the go-to approach in advertising; the anti-commercial. The product is still at the center of the ad and the text is kept short and simple only the headline and the logo are present.

First Polar Bear ad
Coca Cola Light Ad

Welcome to the new Millennium!

This decade was very complicated for America, at least politically speaking. The 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers took a toll on Americans, which pushed them to go to war with Afghanistan. Only when Obama took office, at the end of the decade, did the country started to turn itself around.

Coca Cola Light was very popular during this time, which is why I thought it was only fit to pick a Coca Cola Light ad as reference for this decade. It is an ad from 2006 featuring a woman surrounded by bubbles, with the logo and the slogan “live life light” on the top left corner and a bottle at the bottom left corner. And although quite minimalistic, the fact that it is digitally altered makes it stand out.

Finally, we have the 2010s! This decade is generally characterized by trying new things, getting involved in social issues, and trying to create ads that attract the reader’s attention and make it stick with them. Multi sensorial along with online ads are also very popular during this time. For this period it is quite hard to pick only one to represent the whole decade, but I’ve decided to show you my favorite.

Multi-sensorial ad

Why is it my favorite? Because it is multi-sensorial. It promotes the thought that you can hear a printed ad. It is easy to follow and understand. The idea behind it, although simple at first glance, is quite complex and elaborate. Not only that but it appeals to people’s emotions and people’s recognition of the brand.

I know that nowadays the focus is mostly on digital advertising, but looking back on print ads done over the years, it is a good way to get inspired and assess where we are at the moment in terms of creativity. Not only that, but it is also a good approach that can boost your imagination.

So, what do you think? Has creativity evolved or involuted over the years? I am also curious about which decade is your favorite in terms of advertising and where do you think advertising creativity is going to go from here on out?



Alexandra Denisa Neagoe
The Startup

Content Specialist. Passionate about everything digital, traveling, books, and movies.