• Share

‘Boys on a Bench’: Coke’s Original #workthatmatters

By:  Jonathan Mildenhall Jan 19, 2014
Tags & Topics:
It's the Real Thing ad
Jay Maisel

Following the Detroit race riots and tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the late-1960s, Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Robert Woodruff and his marketing leadership team decided it was time to do something the company had never done before: feature African-Americans and whites together in Coca-Cola advertising.

In 1969, photographer Jay Maisel captured a group of black and white boys in New York City. In the iconic shot, which Coke used in print and TV ads in the years that followed, the teens are relaxed and happy. They’re sitting on a city bench, sharing a fun, lighthearted moment over a Coke.

Looks innocent, doesn't it? 

When you take a closer look at the photo, you see that the boys are sitting on a segregation bench. Coke mixed things up and tackled taboo head-on. The boys are sitting shoulder to shoulder, with their arms touching across the segregation bar. The ad known simply as “Boys on a Bench” was -- and still is -- a powerful brand statement about togetherness and inclusion.

Jonathan Mildenhall at Cannes Lions in 2013

Cannes Lions, June 2013

When you work in marketing at Coke, you’re spoiled for choice in terms of favorite pieces of work. And my mum, who has five sons, brought us all up to avoid favoritism. But of all the brilliant content Coca-Cola has produced over the years, this is without a shadow of a doubt my favorite ad from our history.

Last summer at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, where Coca-Cola was named Creative Marketer of the Year, my colleague Ivan Pollard and I proudly wore t-shirts bearing this image onstage during our keynote presentation. The same photo can be found on the back of my business card and in my e-mail signature.

At Coke, we talk a lot about producing #workthatmatters -- storytelling with a social purpose that reflects our flagship brand’s relentlessly optimistic point of view and commitment to building a better world. This legacy, which predates "Boys on a Bench," lives on in our creative communications.

Jonathan Mildenhall is senior vice president of integrated marketing content and design excellence for Coca-Cola North America.