In the early 1940s, an elf-like cartoon figure — a sprite — made his appearance in magazine advertising for Coca-Cola. Though it is a common misconception that this pixie known as Sprite Boy is named for The Coca-Cola Company's Sprite brand, the two are unrelated. In fact, the company did not introduce the beverage Sprite until 1961, after the Sprite Boy was no longer featured in ads.
Sprite Boy came about because of what the company perceived as a problem in the marketplace. Although the brand's name was "Coca-Cola," many people had given it the nickname "Coke" instead. At the time, the Company discouraged use of "Coke," but people continued to use the name. The company finally accepted it and in June 1941, the abbreviation "Coke" was used for the first time in magazine ads. A campaign began to connect the names "Coke" and "Coca-Cola" — with Sprite Boy as its primary image.
The Stars Represent the Bubbles in Coca-Cola
The elfin character Sprite Boy appeared in ads with a devilish smile, often with stars around him (representing his sparkling personality and the bubbles in Coke). Only the head and hands of Sprite Boy were shown — never a body. Sprite Boy was used so often in advertising he wore two hats — a bottle cap and a soda jerk's hat — to represent both sides of the Coca-Cola business.
Sprite Boy appeared in magazine ads for the first time in January 1942, and gradually the figure became known as the Sprite or the Sprite Boy. In his first magazine ad, he addressed consumers directly: "I'm 'Coca-Cola' known, too, as 'Coke.' … You call me 'Coke.' It's short for 'Coca-Cola.' … P.S.: Everybody likes to shorten words. Abbreviation is a natural law of language. You hear 'Coke' — the friendly abbreviation for the trade-mark 'Coca-Cola' — on every hand. I tell the story in a picture you have so often heard in words." Obviously the Company had changed its opinion on using the name!
The idea for the sprite was developed by Archie Lee of the D'Arcy Advertising Company. After a number of attempts to create a cartoon character to help make the name "Coke" official -- an authorized nickname for the brand -- a D'Arcy art director came up with the idea of the sprite. Artist Haddon Sundblom, already famous for creating the Coca-Cola Santa Claus, created an enduring advertising image for Sprite Boy.
This "Sprite" is a Favorite of Coke Collectors
Items featuring Sprite Boy have always been popular with those who collect Coca-Cola memorabilia. Many of the collectors remember the Sprite Boy advertising, or simply like his friendly smile. A sought-after collectible of the era is the "Welcome Friend, Have a Coke" lithographed tavern sign. The 1940s piece was especially designed to go with the fixtures and decoration of high-class taverns. The price of the sign originally was 39 cents; today the piece can be worth $1,200 on the collectors market.
Sprite Boy was featured on advertising and promotional materials — appearing on signs, cartons, posters, clocks, toys, blotters and games — until 1953. The character also helped support the introduction of king-sized packaging until he was phased out of advertising by 1957-58. Manufacturers of licensed items continue to use him, and his popularity doesn't seem to wane.